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Teenagers Scare The Living Shit Out Of Me

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There was a body in the alleyway.

Ian just stared at it for a minute, a full-on minute, and then he was pulling out his phone to flip it open, selecting a contact and hitting the dial button without a thought.

The phone rang nine times and he was about to hang up when a gruff, irritated voice finally answered.

“Gallagher?” Mickey huffed. He sounded like he’d just woken up. “The fuck you calling me for?”

There wasn’t really a good answer for that, Ian decided. He and Mickey were barely friends really, they’d shared a chemistry book for one semester in high school when they’d been the only kids in class who couldn’t afford new, but that was about it. And Ian had maybe been harboring a big stupid crush on him since then, and he might have made a habit of staggering past his house once or nine times on nights when he got drunk when he was still living at Fiona’s. But calling after midnight on a Wednesday night was far outside the confines of their normal interactions, of which there were none. That made calling him in a panic over a dead body well outside the mainstream.

“Gallagher?” Mickey demanded again. Ian swallowed, but he couldn’t speak. “Ian, what is it?” Maybe it was that Mickey had actually said Ian’s name, or that he actually sounded almost concerned now, but Ian felt his throat loosen.

“There’s a body in the alleyway,” he croaked.

“What fucking alleyway? Where are you?”

“Um,” Ian muttered. He took a step back so he could peer down the street. “Off of Ashland, kind of between the Target and the weird Mexican place?”

“What are you, a fucking chick?” Mickey said in exasperation. He sounded definitely awake now. “What kind of directions are those?”

Ian was looking down at the body again, and he couldn’t really answer because his throat felt clogged again.

“Cross streets, Gallagher,” Mickey prompted.

“I—I don’t know, Mickey, I’m sorry,” Ian said finally. He clapped a hand to his mouth as the bile rose. “I think I’m going to—” and before he could say “vomit up my dinner” or something similar, he was bent over heaving.

After a minute or so he straightened, his vision fuzzy before he realized he was staring blankly at the dead person lying sprawled five feet in front of him.

“Mickey?” he rasped into the phone. There was a silence on the other end of the phone for maybe fifteen seconds, and Ian felt sure that Mickey was going to hang up on him.

“Jesus," Mickey said in response. His voice turned brisk. "Off Ashland? Are you near Pulaski?"

Ian actually gulped in relief. "Yeah, by Pulaski. Over in Humboldt Park."

"Fucking find a gas station and I’ll be there in twenty,” Mickey said. He hung up before Ian could say thank you or hurry please or bye. He didn’t know how Mickey would find him, his brother and sister always made fun of his inability to give decent directions, but the weirdest part was that Ian never for a second thought Mickey wouldn’t come.

It had been an unseasonably warm fall evening earlier, but in the middle of the night the wind was whipping past the buildings and Ian was shivering.

He needed to get off the street and find a gas station. He needed to wait for Mickey to find him. But instead he found himself creeping up closer to the body curled half-naked in a puddle in the alley.

It was a woman, a girl really, probably barely older than Ian. She had a tube top on and her skirt was yanked askew on her hip, but what caught Ian’s eye were her wrists. They weren’t connected to anything. Her hands were gone. It was such an outrageously incongruous sight that his eyes hadn’t picked up on it at first. He felt himself gagging again, forcing himself to look away and focus on her pale face. Her eyes were wide open, just starting to go flat and milky, the bright hazel-green starting to fade. Ian didn’t know eyes did that when you died, started to lose their color, the thought darting through his mind unbidden.

He felt tears prick his own eyes, because even dead, she looked so fucking scared.

Shuddering, he pulled himself up and was nearly running away from the alleyway before he realized he’d moved.

Up the street he saw a BP station shining fluorescent in the night. He hurried toward it, arms wrapped tight around his bare arms, skin prickling from the cold under his tank top.

He went to open the convenience store door but it was locked. He put his face closer to the glass and saw that although the lights were on, the store was empty, which he supposed made sense. It was past one in the morning.

“Fuck,” he whispered, pressing his forehead against the door. His legs were shaking and he lowered himself slowly to the ledge outside the door, leaning back against it.

He hoped Mickey would hurry, somewhat nonsensically, because Mickey was under no real obligation to do anything for Ian, not even to show up, let alone hurry. Later, he would wonder why he hadn’t called Svetlana, his only real friend these days, or even Lip if he was desperate, or just gone back to the shitty motel room he was renting to call someone from there.

But later, he would realize that even at the beginning, he had already been incapable of leaving some poor girl lying cold and dead in an alley by herself. He just needed someone tough, someone who could deal with things, to help him figure out the best thing to do.

The logic was hazy, but his mind felt hazy too, and so he decided to hunker down and wait for Mickey to show up.

Ian wasn’t crying but he felt just on the verge, so he made himself stare at the empty gasp pumps until he settled down. As he watched a few drunk people and a vagrant or two stagger past the gas station, he found himself muttering, "C'mon, Mickey, c'mon" over and over under his breath like a crazy person.

Offhand, he reflected that when he’d given Mickey his number earlier that day, working up the courage to stammer out how they should hang out some time, you know maybe, if he wanted to, no big deal, he’d really pictured it going differently than this.

 

****

 

That morning, Mickey had been casing a liquor store when he saw Ian for the first time in two years. His eyes were glued to the store entrance from his vantage point leaning against a lamp post across the street, carefully taking note of how many people entered and left, and exactly how long after the hour the new cashier got in to start his shift. He’d been so absorbed in his task, the bright red hair darting across the street had barely caught his eye at first.

Then the tall moron the hair was attached to didn’t look both ways and was nearly mowed down by a black SUV coming the other direction.

“Shit—” Mickey yelled out instinctively, but the redheaded idiot whirled back at the last minute, the SUV swerving and blaring its horn and the idiot flicked the car off with both hands.

“Yeah, go fuck yourself!” he shouted after the car as it sped away.

The back of Mickey’s neck got hot. He knew that voice. He’d stolen a chemistry textbook and shared it with that voice (okay, sharing was a strong word, because he only showed up for chemistry maybe four times that whole semester during his third victory lap of freshman year before bailing on school altogether, but whatever), and the body it was attached to.

He’d jacked off to that voice in his head more times than he could count back in the day, a memory that made his neck get even hotter.

Without consciously deciding to, he left his post across the street and trailed behind Ian Gallagher as he made his way to the liquor store. When Ian went inside, Mickey followed him in, even though he was completely blowing his cover and throwing away the entire morning he’d spent watching the store just to creep behind some kid he used to know in high school. His Uncle Ronnie would fucking kill him if he knew, Mickey was breaking like five rules his uncle had drilled into him on rolling liquor stores, but it was almost like an out of body experience. His feet just followed Ian like the redhead was a snake charmer or some shit.

Mickey watched Ian peruse the shelves, focusing on the bottom shelf of vodka like it was an important test at school. He looked different, taller, less gangly but leaner, and definitely rougher in some vague, indefinable way. His hair was shaved tight to his head and he was wearing a ripped, baggy tank top and skinny jeans that were tight like a girl’s.

Ian finally selected a handle of Vladimir vodka and went up to the cashier, Mickey keeping an eye on him in a way even he could acknowledge was creepy from the other side of the shelves.

“ID,” the cashier asked in a bored voice.

“Left it at home,” Ian said cheerfully.

The cashier rolled his eyes. “No ID, no sale.”

“Come on man, don’t be a dick,” Ian said, sounding significantly less cheerful.

Mickey grabbed a mini-bottle of scotch and sidled up to wait in line behind Ian.

“What is this, a sting?” the cashier asked. “You can’t be more than seventeen. I don't sell to teenagers.”

Ian pulled out a handful of crumpled bills. “Look, I’ll give you a little something extra,” he said. He pulled out one bill and smoothed it on the counter. “How about if my friend Andrew Jackson comes out to play?”

“Get out of here, kid,” the cashier said with a sigh.

With a sudden fist slam against the counter, Ian shouted, “Fuck!” and grabbed his money in his fist. He stomped out of the store, slamming the door behind him.

Through the glass door, Mickey watched Ian continue to stomp across the parking lot and throw himself down on a cement parking divider.

Mickey came up and set his mini-bottle next to the abandoned bottle of Vlad. “I’ll take the vodka, too,” he said. He slid his fake ID across the counter. The cashier squinted at him suspiciously, then looked at the ID, then glanced out the door through which Ian had so recently stomped. Mickey just stared back impassively.

The cashier sighed and rang up the purchase. “Whatever, man,” he said. “That’ll be $17.50.”

Mickey paid the man, grabbed the liquor and headed out the store.

Ian had his head in his hands and didn’t seem to notice Mickey approaching until he tapped him on the shoulder with the plastic handle of vodka. Ian nearly jumped out of his skin.

“Jesus, fuck!” he exclaimed, all of his limbs jerking at once like a puppet.

Mickey held up his hand. “Shit, calm down, man,” he said. He held out the vodka. “I think this belongs to you.”

Ian looked at the vodka Mickey held up, then up at Mickey’s face. He pulled himself up from his position on the parking divider and stood in front of Mickey, frowning. Fuck, but the kid had gotten tall, Mickey thought, craning his neck up to look into his eyes that were still just as fucking green as he remembered.

Mickey pushed the vodka at him. “Take it,” he said.

“It’s for me?” Ian asked, looking totally confused.

Mickey snorted. “Well it sure as hell ain’t for me, I’m not in a fucking frat, I don’t drink Vlad.”

Ian smiled a little, just the corner of his mouth turning up. He slowly reached for the handle, like he expected Mickey to jerk it back or smack him over the head with it or something. When his long, slightly freckled fingers wrapped around the neck of the bottle, Mickey let him have it.

“Thanks,” Ian said. He smiled for real this time, his mouth stretching wide over straight, white teeth, like Mickey had given him a handful of diamonds instead of some shitty bottom-shelf liquor.

Mickey rubbed a hand through his hair, uncomfortable. “Fuck that guy in there. This isn’t fucking communist Russia, you should be able to drink like a free man.”

Ian twisted the cap off. “To freedom,” he toasted Mickey, and took a pull from the bottle. He made a face and wiped his mouth clean. Mickey couldn’t help but grimace in sympathy. Times must be tough if the kid was this eager for some warm vodka, at ten in the morning, but whatever, that wasn’t his business.

Besides, Ian was fixing him with that smile again. “Thanks.” Holding the vodka in one hand, he rifled through his back pocket with the other, pulling out the same handful of crumpled fives and tens. “How much do I owe you?”

“Don’t worry about it, man,” Mickey said. As soon as the words left his mouth, he had no idea why he’d said them. He frowned, trying to play it off. “It’s cool, I know the cashier. He owes me a favor.” Why are you lying? he asked himself. Stop lying.

And it was such an odd lie, too, fucking discounts from the liquor store he was casing to rob? Not his best work.

Ian cocked his head to the side, like he could tell it was a lie too. He didn’t say anything right away though. Mickey should have left right then, good deed for the day over and done with, but he felt rooted to the spot.

“I remember you, you know,” Ian said finally. He stuffed the money back into his pocket and snapped his fingers. “My old chemistry buddy.”

Mickey scoffed. “The fuck are you talking about?” He thought he sounded suitably disdainful, but Ian was shaking his head.

“No, man, you and me, we had shared custody of that chemistry book for a while there. Don’t act like you don’t remember,” Ian said.

Something about the way Ian said “shared custody” made Mickey’s heart throb. Fuck, it made him feel panicky, so he kept protesting.

“I don’t remember, because it never happened.” He didn’t know why he was keeping up this charade really, but admitting that of course he remembered Ian, he’d woken up to plenty a wet dream starring the guy during high school, he knew him as soon as he heard his voice, made Mickey's entire chest feel hot and uncomfortable, and so he opted for plausible deniability.

“Huh. Must’ve been some other weirdo with FUCK U UP on his knuckles,” Ian said. He reached out and swiped at the tattoos on Mickey’s left hand and Mickey jerked at the touch like he’d been shocked.

They looked at each other, Ian grinning and Mickey’s mouth hanging open incredulously, until Ian’s left foot began tapping anxiously and he held out his hand.

“Give me your phone,” Ian said.

Mickey raised his eyebrows. “What, you shaking me down? After I bought you alcohol and everything?”

Ian rolled his eyes. “No, Mickey.” He kept his hand held out flat, his expression expectant.

Mickey was so startled at the sound of his name on the other boy’s lips that he pulled out his phone and handed it over. Ian flipped it open and typed furiously, then hit the green ‘send’ button. There was a corresponding ring in the pocket of Ian’s jeans. He tossed the phone back and Mickey caught it, clumsily, against his chest.

“If you ever feel like not reminiscing about our time together in chemistry that definitely didn’t happen, or just, hanging out the way people who have definitely never met before have, you should give me a call,” Ian said. He was smirking now, his expression having shrunk into something slyer and more teasing.

Trying not to open and close his mouth like a fish, Mickey struggled to work up some anger. He might not be able to prove it in a court of law, but he was pretty sure the fucking Gallagher kid was flirting with him, like he was some kind of fag. And yeah Mickey was dying for it, but he had a reputation to maintain.

“Go fuck yourself, Firecrotch,” he said and turned away, hurrying down the street.

“And all the best to you, too!” Ian called behind him. Mickey didn’t turn back, but his hands were sweating. He waited until he turned the corner to wipe them on his jeans.

 

* * * *

 

That night, when Ian saw Mickey walking up the street toward him, the shorter boy’s pale skin almost reflective in the streetlights, Ian had to dig his nails into his arms to keep himself from running to him and throwing his arms around Mickey’s short, stocky body.

Ian allowed himself to walk to meet him, forcing himself to keep his pace measured. He didn’t want to seem too out of control, didn’t want to give away that he was seconds from falling apart (which was asinine because if finding a dead body didn’t give you the pass to fall apart, what did?) so he tried to keep cool.

So he was caught off guard when Mickey grabbed him, holding tight right above Ian's elbows as soon as he was in reach. “Are you okay?” he said roughly. He shook Ian a little, but the motion was gentle, like he wanted to make sure he had Ian’s attention.

Mickey had the bluest eyes Ian had ever seen. He felt mesmerized staring into them.

Ian wasn’t a big crier, and he hated crying in front of people in the rare moments when he did break down, so when his face started to crumple he kind of lurched forward and pressed into the space where Mickey’s neck met his shoulder, hunching over a little to accommodate Mickey's shorter height.

He wasn’t surprised when Mickey froze, but he was surprised when Mickey pulled Ian a little closer, holding him so his face stayed pressed against his neck. He gave Ian a minute, not saying anything, and Ian was able to pull himself together relatively quickly.

Jerking away slightly, he rubbed at his running nose with the back of his hand. “Sorry,” he said miserably, not knowing if he was apologizing for calling Mickey in the middle of the night or making him come get him in a shitty neighborhood or crying all over his shirt.

“Jesus, don’t,” Mickey said irritably, scowling at Ian’s apology. And for some reason that made Ian smile tearily, his grouchiness familiar even after all these years.

Mickey looked around, seeming to note where they were for the first time. “Why the hell are you even out this late? What are you doing in this part of town?” he demanded.

Ian sighed, because he couldn’t hide it forever and he might as well get it over with now. It wasn’t like he had any other excuse to be in Humboldt Park at almost 2 AM in the middle of the week. He didn’t want to lie to Mickey anyway, which was also somewhat of a surprise.

“Working,” Ian said lowly, hedging slightly.

Mickey arched an eyebrow. “Working what? You selling meth?”

Ian snorted at that, then he shrugged a little. “Hooking,” he said simply.

He made himself say the word clearly and look Mickey square in the eye. He’d rather see the look on his face than torture himself by trying to imagine it.

Mickey seemed startled, and Ian felt wistful, wishing he could go back and construct a more ordinary, less complicated version of himself to give to Mickey. But the cat was out of the bag now, so he waited for Mickey to scoff and leave, or worse, give him that sleazy, creepy smile that had become so familiar when Ian told guys what he did for a living these days.

Mickey just kept his hands wrapped around Ian’s arms, though, holding him close enough that they were more or less breathing softly into each other’s faces

“Okay. So where’s the body?” Mickey asked after a moment. And apparently he just wasn’t going to stop surprising Ian tonight, because his tone was calm, like he was totally fine with what Ian had just told him and was ready to move on now.

But then again, dead body, bigger fish to fry and all that, Ian supposed.

Ian gestured behind him with his chin. “In the alley on the left, halfway down the block,” he said. “I was going to call the cops, but then I panicked.” He swallowed. That was a lie, because he was never going to call the cops. He hadn’t had a run-in with the cops that hadn’t ended in misery in the last two years. “I don’t know why I called you.” That was also a lie. He knew why he’d called Mickey, but he didn’t know how to put it into words that wouldn’t make him sound insane. "I'm sorry to drag you out of bed, shit this is crazy, I'm sorry to bother you. Jesus."

Mickey squeezed where he held Ian’s arms, but just slightly, effectively cutting off Ian's nervous rambling. He looked Ian in the eye. “Don’t say that,” he said. His blue eyes were serious. “I’m glad you called me.”

Chapter Text

Mickey let out a low whistle as he peered at the body from the mouth of the alleyway. Ian was hovering over his shoulder. “Holy shit, man,” Mickey said.

He made sure to keep both of them at the mouth of the alley, holding out an arm in a distinctly soccer mom motion. Ian told him he’d already been pretty close to the body, and Mickey wished he hadn’t done that, but at least he hadn’t touched the dead girl. The last thing they needed was either of their DNA anywhere near her.

He squinted a little harder. “Her hands are gone,” he noted. He tried not to let the shock come through his voice, but christ. Someone had cut off her fucking hands. It made him feel dizzy and he focused on her face instead. She looked young, no older than Mandy.

Ian made a loud swallowing sound behind him. “Yep,” he said.

Mickey turned to look at him and saw Ian was looking a little green. He was also shivering, because he was still in that dumb skimpy tank top from earlier. Mickey pulled him away from the alleyway and started heading up the street, but Ian resisted.

“Wait, what about her?” he demanded. “We can’t just leave her there.”

“I’ll call in a tip,” Mickey assured him. Ian still looked skeptical, until Mickey rolled his eyes. “We’ll call it in, but come on, you really want to be here when the cops show?” Ian didn’t seem keen to argue, so Mickey took it as a victory.

With one last look at the alleyway where the poor lifeless body of the girl lay, they turned and started walking up the street.

They found a 24-hour diner a few blocks up and Ian went inside to find a booth while Mickey called 911.

An operator picked up on the third ring. She asked for Mickey’s emergency.

“There’s a dead girl over by Pulaski and Grand Avenue,” he said, pitching his voice low enough to distort his natural tone.

“Okay, what’s your name and phone number?”

Mickey let out a laugh. “Yeah, fuck you. Just thought you assholes might want to know,” he said. He hung up. His Uncle Ronnie had told him how shitty dispatch was at tracing cell phones, and besides, his own phone was a burner, but he still felt skittish staying on the line too long. He put his phone away and went to find Ian inside.

He saw Gallagher sitting in the corner of a booth in the back, his forehead pressed against the glass. The hostess blandly ignored Mickey as he walked by and went to join him.

“You make the call?” Ian asked when Mickey sat down.

“Sure did, chief,” Mickey responded, and then he didn’t know what else to say. He wanted to know why Ian had called him and not somebody else, and he wanted to know why Ian wasn’t wearing a coat or a jacket against the cold. He wanted to ask Ian about what he had told Mickey earlier, that he was a hooker, his voice almost defiant. Mickey wanted to ask himself why the hell he'd dragged his ass across town to meet some kid he used to pant over back in high school, just to find himself knee-deep in some weird murder shit he didn't want any part of.

Instead Mickey opened the plastic menu in front of him. “You like pancakes?”

A bored-looking waitress came over and took their order, and Ian and Mickey sat in mildly uncomfortable silence as they waited. There were a few rowdy teenage girls in a far corner, and an old man sitting quietly at the counter, but other than that, they were pretty much it for clientele.

“Are you okay?” Mickey ventured after a while.

Ian looked up, seemingly startled out of his thoughts. He coughed out a laugh at the question. “Am I okay?” he repeated. He lowered his voice. “I just stumbled upon a dead girl with no hands in an alleyway.” He raised an eyebrow sarcastically. “So yeah, today’s going really well for me.”

Ian seemed jittery. He’d seemed jittery when Mickey had run into him at the liquor store earlier, but this seemed to be a different form of jittery, like he was trying to be still but his body’s natural instinct was to flinch and move, like there was electricity running under his skin. Mickey didn’t know if it was the shock and unspeakable horror of tonight, or if this was just how Ian was now.

“No wonder you were trying to buy booze earlier, if this is what your nights are like these days,” Mickey said idly.

“What are you, my sponsor?” Ian asked. He rolled his eyes a little.

Mickey smirked back. He decided to take the sassiness as a positive sign. At least the other boy wasn’t shaking in his arms anymore.

“Who would do something like that?” Ian said after a pause. His voice sounded choked. Mickey didn't need to ask what he was talking about. Ian stared at the laminated tabletop, tracing the diagonal pattern with the tip of his finger. “It’s so fucked up.”

“Yeah, it is,” Mickey said. He still didn’t know what to say. He remembered how his Uncle Ronnie was always telling him not to miss a good chance to shut up, and for once, Mickey took his advice and kept his mouth shut.

Their pancakes came and Ian started into his with gusto. Sudden trauma obviously didn’t affect his appetite, Mickey observed. As for him, he took his time pouring syrup, trying not to think of the red, shiny, empty wrists of the girl in the alley. The image was still fresh and difficult to ignore in Mickey’s mind.

“You want to call your sister or something?” Mickey asked after a few moments of watching Ian eat.

He could recall Ian’s older sister Fiona vaguely, her face sharp and aggressive in his mind. The only memory he really had of her was one time when two of Mickey’s brothers had teased Ian’s littlest sister, the redheaded one who looked like Ian, until she cried. Fiona had come marching over to the Milkovich house in a tornado of righteous fury, pounding on the screen door and screaming for Joey and Colin to come outside. Both boys had hid in the kitchen until she’d stormed away with threats of tearing them apart if they ever looked sideways at her sister again. Fiona had always been a holy terror, Mickey knew that at least, and she probably wouldn’t be pleased to hear her little brother was hooking in Humboldt Park in the middle of the night.

“Nah, her and Debbie live in Michigan now,” Ian said. His voice was unperturbed but Mickey watched him cut into his pancakes with renewed vigor.

“So your family moved or something?” Mickey asked. He thought of the old Gallagher house, growing steadily shabbier over the years as a rotating cast of renters moved in and out. It was tough to be sure, but he thought he’d stopped seeing the Gallaghers around about when he’d moved out of his dad’s house and in with his Uncle Ronnie, after everything in Mickey's life had unceremoniously gone to shit.

Ian grimaced. “Not exactly. DCFS kind of wore our asses out, it wasn’t like we moved on purpose.”

“What the fuck does that mean?”

Ian paused, but then his face went blank in an expression Mickey already recognized form earlier when he’d told Mickey he was hooking, like Ian was steeling himself to confess something he prefered to keep to himself but was too stubborn to hide. Fuck what you think about me, that expression said.

“Long story short, it means Child Services showed up for a surprise inspection, saw a bunch of shit, Fiona tried to get guardianship but she was barely twenty-two, and the great state of Illinois figured we’d be better in the system than all living together with her.” Ian rubbed a tired hand over his face. “Tale as old as time, right?”

Mickey was distracted by the realization that this must have been August, nearly two years ago. He blinked, a little shocked at the synchronicity. When Ian’s family was being split apart, Mickey had been in the middle of nearly being beaten to death by his father over one half-assed blowjob. It was weird thinking of how their lives aligned, miles away in circumstance even as they were unfolding just a few blocks apart.

“My little brothers lucked out, they got adopted by this bourgie couple over on the Gold Coast,” Ian was saying around a mouthful of pancakes. Ian’s tone was breezy, but it felt hard won. “Couple of gay guys. Talk about irony, right?”

Mickey stayed silent, not sure how to respond to Ian’s casual outing of himself.

“Good for them at least, I guess.” Ian gestured with his fork, the pancakes on the end dripping syrup. “I mean, luck of the draw, but they got out. Liam, he’s almost four now, he probably won’t even remember most of us by the time he’s all grown up.”

Mickey felt his head tilt to the side in question, because why would Liam forget his own brothers and sisters?

Ian noticed Mickey’s expression and shrugged. He smiled tightly. “I mean, we were allowed to visit them a little in the beginning, Carl would throw a fit if we stayed away too long,” Ian said. He paused. “But then his new parents decided we weren’t the best influences, I mean, he wasn’t wrong, Fiona was really struggling and Lip and me were still at the group home. So we saw them less, and Carl stopped bitching about it as much, shit he was living like a goddamn king over there, can’t really blame him. He’s got his new life, now.”

Ian fell silent, and Mickey found that he missed his casual rambling, even if what he’d been describing was bleak as shit. He wanted to know how Ian ended up where he was, why his little brothers got adopted and his sisters apparently lived happily in Michigan or some shit while Ian was left behind, looking fucking desperate and skinny, now that Mickey was studying him up close.

It was none of his business though, he rebuked himself. But his chance to ask questions was lost anyway, because at that moment a pair of cops sidled into the diner.

 

****

 

Ian could tell Mickey wanted to pry, dig deeper into how Ian’s family had spontaneously combusted. He resigned himself to an interrogation, but then Mickey’s eyes narrowed as he looked past Ian’s shoulder.

“5-0, man,” Mickey said quietly, gesturing with his chin. Ian turned around and saw two familiar blue uniforms scanning the occupants of the diner. Christ, like this night couldn't go any more to shit. He turned back to Mickey and met his eyes.

“Shit,” Ian said. “They coming over?”

“Yep,” Mickey confirmed.

The cops took their time as they made their way. Ian didn’t need to turn around to know what they looked like. One was tall and gangly, pale face freckled and more Irish than a scone. The other cop was older than his lanky colleague, and always made Ian think of Mike Ditka, familiar to Ian each time he saw him in the way all Polish white guys in Chicago looked vaguely alike.

“Evening, boys,” the Irish one said, both cops coming to a stop and looming over Mickey and Ian at the table.

“Officer O’Reilly,” Ian said flatly. The Irish cop grinned at Ian familiarly, not even sparing Mickey a glance. Ian could see Mickey go still, trying to read the situation.

“Me and Nowak here were wondering if we’d see you tonight,” O’Reilly said, gesturing at his partner beside him. The other cop, Nowak, was not grinning. He seemed distracted.

“911 got a call about a dead girl near here,” Nowak said. That was quick, Ian thought, and wondered if he was referring to Mickey’s anonymous tip or if someone else had called.

“And the first place you thought to go was a diner?” Mickey asked in disbelief. He laughed, obviously trying to make the sound as derisive as possible. “Good police work there, boys.”

Nowak squinted at Mickey a little, like he was trying to place him. Mickey just sneered.

O’Reilly gave Mickey an unamused look, then turned back at Ian. “Guy at the gas station said he saw some redheaded kid loitering around the same time we got the call about the girl,” O’Reilly said. He cocked his head, studying Ian. “And I know how you like to work this part of town.” He was smiling easily, almost friendly. Ian recognized the wave of dislike and powerlessness as it swept over him.

He kept his voice neutral. “I don’t know anything about a dead girl.”

“It’s our job to lock down the scene, track down any witnesses,” O’Reilly said easily.

“I’m not a witness,” Ian said. He resisted asking how the fuck harassing him and Mickey counted as locking down a crime scene, and focused on the sticky tabletop in front of him instead.

O’Reilly kept pressing anyway. “Really? You didn’t see anything down the street, you didn’t see any girl in the alleyway over there?”

Ian didn’t respond. He kept his eyes on the tabletop. He’d learned it was always better for him if he kept his mouth shut with the cops. O’Reilly wanted him to lose his temper, but this wasn’t Ian’s first rodeo.

Nowak heaved a sigh. “Alright, up out of your seats. Let’s take it outside.” He reached to grab Mickey’s arm but Mickey jerked it out of his grasp.

“Get your hands off me, man, I can fucking walk,” Mickey snapped.

Ian could sympathize. An hour ago Mickey’d been asleep in his bed and now he was being roughed up by some cops who were probably going to arrest them both for some bullshit neither of them had anything to do with. For the first time, Ian felt guilty for calling Mickey. He had no right to drag Mickey into his weird life.

“Easy on the attitude, kiddo,” Nowak told Mickey.

“Blow me,” Mickey said under his breath, but he got up and followed Ian, who paused to toss a crumpled-up bill onto the table and headed to the door, his face resigned.

Outside, O’Reilly pushed Ian and Mickey against the brick wall of the diner while Nowak went to the police cruiser parked out front. The cool air whipped across Ian’s cheeks.

“Gallagher,” Mickey said. He shrugged out of his jacket when O'Reilly stepped back and Mickey handed it over. Ian shook his head and pushed it back, but Mickey kept pressing. “Just fucking take it.”

“That’s adorable,” O’Reilly said. Mickey flicked him off and the cop shoved him harder against the wall. He spoke directly into Mickey’s ear. “You should fucking watch it, kid. We got a dead body down the street, now would not be the time to let our tempers get the best of us.”

Mickey’s fingers went slack on the jacket and he started to struggle.

“Mick,” Ian said quietly from beside him. Mickey glanced at him, and Ian could almost see him willing himself go still, resisting the urge to elbow the cop at his back in the stomach.

“Yeah, listen to your boyfriend, pal,” O’Reilly said. He released Mickey with a final shove against the brick and stepped back. He nodded at Ian. “Alright, Pretty Woman, empty your pockets.”

Ian just stood stiffly, staring at the wall in front of his nose. He was an underage prostitute with a cop at his back, he was well aware of his distinct disadvantage, but he still clung to this small show of defiance.

“You fucking deaf? Empty your goddamn pockets,” O’Reilly repeated. He stepped forward and pushed Ian against the wall this time. Ian’s hands pressed against the brick but that was his only movement, not fighting back or moving to empty his pockets like the cop demanded. “Don’t play hard to get, asshole, I don’t got the time tonight.” O’Reilly shoved a hand down the pocket of Ian’s jeans and withdraw a handful of items. He threw them on the ground, keeping Ian still with his other forearm.

Ian heard his things fall onto the sidewalk. His wallet, cell phone, a half-full packet of gum, a sleeve of condoms.

O’Reilly smirked, bending to retrieve the condoms. “Look at this, is this paraphernalia?” He let the condoms dangle near Ian’s face.

Mickey spoke up, his tone furious. “What, carrying condoms a fucking crime now?” he spat.

“No, but carrying condoms to facilitate illegal sex work is,” O’Reilly shot back. He pushed Ian hard, making his chin bounce on the brick. “Isn’t that right, Gallagher? This isn’t the first time we’ve had this conversation, is it?”

Ian hated this, he hated knowing Mickey was watching as Ian’s face went blank while the cop taunted him, hated his own feeling of helplessness. He was calculating the worst that would happen if he shoved O’Reilly off, if he wanted to risk getting arrested again, when the older cop hollered over from the police cruiser. Nowak had been crouched near the radio listening to the crackling conversations.

“Hey Jim, we got to go,” Nowak called to O’Reilly. He walked over to them briskly from the cop car. “There’s more chatter on the scanner, they got another call about the body. We need to go help shut down that street.” His eyes darted from Ian against the wall and O’Reilly pressing him to the brick. “We don’t got time for this, man.”

Seeming to agree, O’Reilly gave Ian one final shove and pushed away. “I want you assholes off the street tonight,” he told Ian and Mickey. “I see you anywhere near here, I’ll take you both in for solicitation, no questions asked.”

Ian had a feeling O’Reilly was full of shit. If he were going to arrest them, they’d be in the cop car already. As it was, he figured the two cops had just been killing time hassling him and Mickey while more police officers arrived at the scene a few blocks over. Fucking lazy asses, Ian thought to himself.

Up at the corner, Ian could see flashing lights as a few cruisers drove by in the direction of the alley where the girl’s body still lay.

O’Reilly walked back to the cop car with a smirk. Nowak hesitated, frowning and looking at both boys still standing against the wall. “It’s cold out,” Novawk finally told them. “You two go home.”

“Thanks for weighing in, pal, we’ll get right on that,” Mickey said. He yanked at his shirt to straighten it from where O’Reilly had manhandled him. “Why don’t you go solve a fucking crime, huh?”

Nowak pointed a thick finger at him. “You better watch that mouth of yours, Milkovich. It’s gonna get you in trouble some day.”

Mickey rolled his eyes, apparently unsurprised that the cop knew his name. Nowak turned to Ian. “Put some clothes on, kid. You’re going to freeze to death.” He gestured at Ian’s bare arms. Ian glanced down and grabbed for Mickey’s abandoned jacket.

“You got it, officer,” Ian said. He gave him a cheeky plastic grin, unable to help the attitude. Nowak had always been a softer touch than O’Reilly, but that was such a low bar Ian didn’t think he deserved a fucking medal for it or anything.

Nowak rolled his eyes to the heavens, muttered, “Goddamn teenagers” under his breath, and followed his partner back to the car. After a moment they took off down the street in the direction the other cruisers had gone.

Ian dropped his fake smile and his brow was knitted in thought. He stooped and grabbed his stuff off the sidewalk, shoving it all in his pocket again.

Mickey seemed shocked that they weren’t in handcuffs. “Well, that definitely wasn’t how I saw that going when they pulled us out here.”

Ian shrugged. “I did. They didn’t have shit on us. There was no cashier on duty at the gas station that could’ve seen me.”

Mickey raised an eyebrow. “Really? They sure seemed like they were looking for you.”

“They were probably just patrolling the area. I mean, they’re just beat cops, they’re not homicide detectives or anything,” Ian said slowly. Mickey seemed a little stunned at how familiar Ian seemed with them, and Ian tried to downplay it, tried not to reveal that O’Reilly was becoming like his own fucking familiar shadow these days and it felt like a noose slowly tightening around his neck.

“That fucking Irish asshole has had a hard-on for me for months, he’s always messing with me when he sees me,” Ian settled on saying. “This was probably just an excuse.”

It felt like a wobbly explanation. Ian could tell Mickey thought there was something Ian wasn’t telling him, or maybe a lot of things. He wondered if he still resembled the sweet, freckle-faced fifteen-year-old Mickey probably remembered from chemistry. That kid felt mostly like a stranger to Ian these days.

He turned to Mickey. “I’m sorry for dragging you into this tonight,” Ian said, and he meant it. It was stupid to call Mickey in the first place.

Mickey shrugged. “Well, it was a more exciting end to my Wednesday than I expected, anyway.”

Mickey looked at Ian like he was trying to read something in his face. The worst part was that Ian wanted to stick around and let him, give him the chance to figure Ian out. That urge was enough to make Ian step away.

“I have to go,” he said. He stuffed his hands in his pockets.

“Okay,” Mickey said. He looked uneasy at letting Ian just walk away, but that was probably just Ian’s imagination. He barely knew the kid. “Thanks for the pancakes, I guess.”

Mickey smiled a little. The sight made Ian’s stomach go tight and made him feel like a doofus simultaneously, because it was just a smile, it shouldn’t make his skin feel hot to look at.

“Well, thanks for coming to my rescue,” Ian said. He reached out and punched lightly at Mickey’s shoulder. “Maybe next time you can buy me dinner.”

“Fucking dream on,” Mickey scoffed, but Ian just laughed at him. He was starting to recognize Mickey’s bravado already.

Ian started walking backward, his eyes on Mickey. “I’ll see you around, Mickey,” he said. He finally turned around, walking fast to get to the L station, telling himself he was leaving the dead girl and those goddamn cops and the entire bizarre, weird night behind him. Nevertheless, he couldn’t get a pair of sharp blue eyes out of his head for the rest of the night.

Chapter Text

Mickey was having a dream that Ian was fucking him from behind over the old leather couch in his dad’s house. Mickey knew in that non-specific way you know things in dreams that it was two years ago, the day his dad caught him and beat the shit out of him and threw him out of the house.

Mickey immediately knew it was a dream because Ian hadn’t been there that day. More than that, Mickey had never been fucked before, by Ian or any guy. Even more than that, his brain was definitely messing with him because the actual day his dad caught him in the midst of receiving a half-hearted blowjob, it had not been nearly as tender and sexy as the images he was seeing now.

It felt so good to let Ian push inside him, Mickey’s cock leaking against the old leather couch, Ian’s breath puffing against Mickey’s neck in rhythm with his thrusts, that even though he knew right away that it wasn’t real, he settled hazily into the scene in his head like he was wrapping himself in a comforter on a cold winter day.

The Ian in the dream wasn’t the Ian he knew in high school, he was the tall, lanky stranger he’d met last night, wearing the same baggy tank top and skinny jeans shoved down to his thighs. Mickey pressed back against him, shoving himself onto his cock, moaning so loud he was idly aware his voice must be echoing through his apartment, but he didn’t care because he was about to come in the dream, he was about to come in real life, he was—

—startling suddenly awake as someone sat on the edge of his bed, yanking Mickey out of his dream and away from Dream Ian, leaving him panting and throwing a fist out.

His Uncle Ronnie stood up quickly from where he’d sat down, bobbing to avoid Mickey’s fists.

“Whoa, whoa, easy, slugger! I thought you were having a nightmare,” his Uncle Ronnie said, looming above him. His normally impassive steely gaze morphed into an uncomfortable wince. “This looks more like a…happy dream, though.”

“What the hell are you doing here?” Mickey sputtered, his voice a little squeakier than he’d like, still flailing to free himself of the tangled sheets that trapped his limbs. His heart was pounding but he tried to slow his gasps for air even as he blushed, squirming around to hide his throbbing boner.

“I knocked a bunch, I thought I heard you shouting,” his uncle said, a little defensively. Mickey blushed harder, jesus, like this couldn’t get more uncomfortable. “That’s what you get for living in this shithole, it’s easy to break in.”

Mickey gave him a sour look, because fucking boundaries man, just because his uncle had the capacity to break into his apartment didn’t mean he should, fuck.

Ronnie breezily ignored Mickey’s obvious discomfort and sat back down on the edge of the bed. He waited patiently as Mickey forced himself to calm down.

“You okay?” Ronnie asked after a minute. He knew it sometimes took Mickey a while to calm down if he woke up suddenly. Mickey hated being startled awake.

“I’m fine,” Mickey said, voice still a little sharper than he’d meant it to be.

Ronnie raised an eyebrow. “Hey, dial it down a notch. It’s just, from outside it sounded like one of those dreams you used to get, I just wasn’t sure—”

Mickey shook his head, cutting him off. “Not that kind of nightmare.”

“Another kind of nightmare, then?”

“Maybe I just got the shit scared out of me because of some asshole hovering over my bed til I woke up,” Mickey deflected, rather than verbalizing what was really going on in his head.

Yeah I was imagining this redhead I knew from high school railing me from behind

(Now that he was conscious and awake, he recognized how weird it was that not only had Ian been in his dream, but that there had been anyone there at all. It had been awhile since there had been another person in his wet dreams. Almost two years, to be exact.)

—and oh, by the way, the only reason he was on my mind is because he called me in a panic last night after stumbling upon a dead body in an alleyway.

(The more he tried to figure out why he’d answered his phone last night, why he’d hopped out of bed to run and meet Ian for no reason other than the guy had asked, the more uncomfortable he felt. He had an inkling, but for now he gave himself the temporary gift of willful denial, refusing to examine anything too closely.)

No, Mickey couldn't admit any of this out loud. Ronnie was pretty unflappable, but Mickey figured this was a situation when he would, indeed, be flapped.

As long as Mickey had known his uncle, he’d been able to let deflections slide off his back like water off a duck, and right now was no exception. He cocked his head, his face neutral like it went when he knew Mickey was hiding something.

“You still get those nightmares anymore, kid?” Ronnie asked.

Mickey supposed it was a fair question. When he’d moved out of his uncle’s a few months ago, Mickey's nightmares had still been going strong.

“Sometimes,” he admitted, then he rolled his eyes. “Not now, though. I just got woken up by you breaking and entering into my apartment.”

His uncle nodded, like it was a hypothetical situation Mickey was referring to. “That would be startling.” He slapped at Mickey’s feet through the covers. “Get up, it’s after noon. I got a job for you.”

Mickey grumbled, but he was definitely awake now, might as well get up. His uncle left him to go make coffee in the kitchen and Mickey stumbled around pulling on pants and a shirt and going to brush his teeth.

Eventually, he joined his uncle in the kitchen. “Alright, what’s the plan?” he asked, hopping up on a stool.

“We need to get some money cleaned,” Ronnie said.

Mickey groaned. He hated laundering cash. It was so fucking boring, and it took forever, just sitting around with the guy at the Laundromat (his uncle thought it was clever, using a Laundromat front as his laundering spot, even though Mickey thought it was as clever as a really good pun, which is to say, not very), while he laboriously counted the duffel bags of cash Mickey brought him.

“Come on, can’t Colin do that? Or literally anyone else?” He knew he was whining, but he was counting on something physical and distracting today, not sitting around while his mind went over and over what it looked like when someone cut off someone else’s hands.

Ronnie gave him a look. “Well, if you’d rolled that liquor store like you were supposed to yesterday, maybe you’d be doing something more interesting today.”

Mickey glanced away. His uncle wasn’t big on shouting or physical punishments, not like Mickey's dad had been, but he had other, more meaningful ways of making his displeasure known. Like sticking Mickey with a job he knew he hated so next time he wouldn’t pussy out of the real job he gave him.

So he shut up about it, but he still must’ve been scowling. Ronnie’s face didn’t soften, his face rarely softened or looked anything other than stony, but he gave Mickey an assessing look. “Get this done, and maybe you can tag along for some wet work tomorrow out in Skokie.”

Mickey knew Ronnie was throwing him a bone. This was what he’d been bugging his uncle about for weeks now, after all. But suddenly the thought of wet work made his mouth go dry.

He tried to smile at his uncle anyway. “Cool,” Mickey said.

He drained a mug of coffee and took the bags his uncle had sitting at his feet, and began his trudge halfway across town to Ukrainian Village over on the West Side.

In his pocket, his cell phone felt like it was burning white-hot against his thigh. Ian’s number was in there. He could call Ian, or text him, right now. He’d gone years with no connection to the Gallagher kid, and all of sudden here was this invisible tether between the two of them, made tighter through the mutual horror and weirdness of the night before. He wondered if Ian was as freaked out as Mickey was. He wondered if Ian wanted him to call, or if he was thinking about calling Mickey too.

He got on the Red Line train, fingers twitching, too busy psyching himself up to pull out his phone and call Ian during the ride to notice his stop, and by the time he did he was left walking five blocks out of his way to get to the Laundromat, grumbling and swearing the whole way.

The bell over the door tinkled as he pushed his way inside. There were washers and dryers lining the walls, but only one was occupied, the customer a scruffy looking hipster in a dumb woolen hat. The Laundromat was always just this side of empty, just enough to avoid suspicion that it was a front.

Mickey swung his duffel bags onto the counter, glancing around, feeling antsy.

He hit the bell on the counter since no one was at the register. “Yo, is no one working today? I need these dry cleaned,” he called out, hitting the bell a few more times when no one appeared from the back.

“Fucking chill with the bell, I’m coming,” a girl’s voice called out sourly, and Mickey’s stomach went tight. Shit. He just couldn’t catch a break today.

Because it wasn’t Eddie, the dopey, doughy idiot Mickey usually dealt with when he came by the Laundromat, who emerged from the back room. It was his sister Mandy.

When she saw him, she actually froze. They stared at each other in mutual surprise. “Hey,” she said after a pause.

“Where’s Eddie?” Mickey asked, scowling. He didn’t have time for any small talk bullshit, he told himself, trying to get down to business.

He rarely saw Mandy these days. His uncle had mentioned that she’d called him a few weeks ago, looking for work, but it wasn’t like she was blowing up Mickey’s phone for anything, and he hadn’t known she was picking up hours at the Laundromat.

“Out,” Mandy said with a shrug.

“Well, when the hell is he coming back?” Mickey demanded, and for some reason Mandy smirked.

“Jesus, you definitely haven’t gotten more patient since you moved out,” she said.

Mickey felt himself stiffen. He wasn’t talking about this right now, he wasn’t getting into it with fucking Mandy of all people, but the unconcerned way she said “moved out”, like he’d just decided spur of the moment one day he needed a change of pace and moved in with Ronnie, like it was a normal thing and not the result of the most fucked up sequence of events in Mickey’s eighteen years alive, made him instantly furious.

Not seeming to notice the sudden tension, Mandy reached across the counter and grabbed hold of the duffel bags. “I’ll just put these in back til Eddie gets here.”

Mickey wanted to bolt, but he knew his uncle would be pissed if he left before the money got cleaned, especially after his fuck up yesterday. He gestured toward a chair in the back. “I’ll just…wait or some shit, until he gets back.” He ran a hand through his hair, still scowling. “Could you fucking call him or something, tell him to get his ass back here so I don’t have to sit around all day?”

Mandy was still smirking, and goddamnit, something about the expression made Mickey feel like he was sixteen again, living in the room across from hers, like no time had passed. He didn’t like the sensation.

“Yeah, I’ll call him,” she said after another pause. She hefted the bags into her arms, starting toward the back room. “It’s good to see you, Mick.”

“Yeah, alright,” Mickey said dismissively, because he knew she was full of shit. If it was good to see him, she would’ve called him one goddamn time in the past two years.

He threw himself in the far chair by the window, stewing. Mandy disappeared into the back room and Mickey was left glaring at the stupid hipster switching his clothes to the dryer, waiting for fucking Eddie to fucking get back here so he could fucking get on with his day.

Like some asshole, Mickey distracted himself by wondering what Ian was doing.

 

****

 

Across town, Ian was lying in bed. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon, but he hadn’t slept at all since he’d fallen into bed at the crack of dawn, and his eyes were burning.

He couldn’t get the face of the dead girl out of his mind. He also hated thinking of her as just the dead girl. He wished he knew her name, or something else he could call her, that would give her a life or personality outside of Ian’s own imagination. Because she had been more than just some dead girl, before Ian had stumbled upon her. She deserved to be remembered as more than that.

It was a maudlin thought and it made him rub both hands over his face roughly. The shades on the windows were drawn but light still filtered through the cheap fabric.

Giving in, he sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed, giving up on pretending to sleep. He didn’t have to meet his first trick until eight that night, he had time to take a nap later if he had to. Until then, he wanted to get to the library. He wanted to check and see if there was anything online about gruesome, horrible, nightmarish deaths from the night before, although he thought it was probably too early for any incident reports to have filtered through. There was no wifi at the shitty motel he was crashing at, and it wasn’t like he had a computer or a smartphone anyway. Man, he hated being broke.

He checked his cell phone. Two missed calls from Svetlana. He pulled up her number in his phone and hesitated before pressing dial, then decided he might as well get it over with now.

She picked up on the first ring. “Look who fucking remembered how to use phone.”

Ian grimaced. He knew she’d be mad that he’d forgotten to check in. “I know, I know. My bad.”

“You cannot just say ‘my bad’ and think that is all.”

“Lana, I know.”

“You do not know. I did not sleep worrying about your stupid carrot head.”

He felt his face flush with guilt. “I’m sorry.” He paused, then decided to be honest. “It was a weird night.”

Svetlana’s voice was instantly alert. “Weird how? You are okay?”

“I’m okay,” Ian said, and it wasn’t a total lie. He was glad Mickey had shown up, and that he hadn’t been alone to deal with that fucking Irish asshole cop on his own, even if it had been humiliating to have the audience for it all. Still, it could’ve been worse.

Nevertheless, he waffled on whether to tell Svetlana about the dead body. Already it was feeling like some weird macabre dream he’d made up.

Svetlana wasn’t fooled. “You are sure? What happened?”

Ian stalled. First he told her about his two tricks earlier in the night, one regular who just liked Ian to go down on him for a half hour or so, and another newer guy who had been nothing special, a pretty undemanding bottom. It was his and Svetlana’s standard post-mortem after one of them worked, and he went through the motions, answering Svetlana’s stray questions mechanically.

He’d almost decided not to tell her anything about the girl in the alley, when suddenly the words came sprinting out. “I found a dead body.”

There was stricken silence on the other end of the line.

After a few moments, it made Ian nervous and he babbled to fill it. “She was just lying there in an alleyway. I think someone strangled her to death, I mean I don’t know, there just wasn’t any blood. Her hands were gone.”

He didn’t notice at first that his whole body had gone cold and sweat was running down his back. The longer Svetlana stayed silent, the colder and more scared he felt.

“Are you joking?” she finally asked after a moment. “Is this joke?”

“No, it’s not a fucking joke,” Ian said. He laughed without any humor, the sound weak and unhappy. “I called the police, so don’t worry.” Well, that was almost true anyway.

“I do not think you should have done that,” Svetlana said after another interminable pause.

“What, not called the police?” Ian hated the police, more specifically he hated one freckly lanky asshole police officer in particular, but the thought of walking away and leaving that poor girl for the rats to get at made his stomach turn over. “I had to call the police, I couldn’t just leave her there.”

“What do I tell you, what do I always tell you, you cannot, you cannot…” she paused, searching for the right expression, and Ian could hear her irritation at the memory blank until she pinpointed the word, “the risk, Ian. You cannot risk yourself for strangers, even poor little dead strangers.” Svetlana’s voice was harsh, even though Ian knew she was probably just baffled by him.

Svetlana never understood Ian’s connection to other people, to strangers he just met or hypothetical people he would never know. Svetlana had a concrete interest in a finite number of people, and Ian was one of them, and she considered his natural draw toward others a weakness. She’d told him so multiple times. She’d told him so the first day they’d met.

But right now, Ian still felt the need to explain it to her, to try and tell her what it felt like to look into that poor girl’s wide, frightened, unseeing eyes and feel like there but for the grace of god went Ian.

“Lana, she was working,” he finally said, meaningfully. He’d known the night before as soon as he’d seen her. It wasn’t one thing, not just her clothes or her makeup, or how young her eyes were but how old her face seemed, it was the combination of everything about her. Ian was willing to bet all the money he’d made the night before that before she died, she’d been turning tricks, just like him.

Svetlana understood what he meant immediately, but it didn’t seem to matter to her. “All more reason for you to stay out of it.”

“I didn’t get involved, I just walked away and called 911, that’s it.”

“That is never just it, there is log of call now, they know your voice,” Svetlana argued.

Ian didn’t correct her and say that it was actually Mickey’s voice. At this point, he knew it was too late to mention that he’d called Mickey. Svetlana was already pissed, and this would just set her off more. He also didn’t think now was the time to tell her about yet another run-in with everyone’s favorite asshole cop, O’Reilly.

Svetlana was the most familiar part about his life these days. It was an undeniable comfort to have an older, protective, overbearing presence (almost sisterly, his mind supplied, but thinking about Fiona made him angry so he didn’t) but it also meant he felt responsible for her anxiety. He didn’t like making her worry, even though he appreciated that she did.

“What did you mean, you say earlier, ‘her hands were gone’, why did you say that?” Svetlana said sharply, drawing Ian back to the conversation.

He grimaced on his end of the phone. “I mean, they were gone. It was horrible. Someone had cut them off. She was just lying there, dead, her eyes wide open and her hands were gone.” Ian stopped talking to close his eyes, inhaling and exhaling deeply to forestall the panic attack he felt curdling just below his skin.

“If that is true, then there was probably reason,” Svetlana said carefully.

“What kind of a fucking reason is there to cut off someone’s hands?” Ian demanded, horrified.

Svetlana finally seemed to lose her temper. “Do not be stupid, Ian. If she was working girl, you know there was reason. There is always reason to hurt women, to hurt people like us, because there does not need to be a reason.” She sounded panicked now, which was more terrifying, because Svetlana rarely lost her cool.

“But what if I hadn’t called in, and no one found her—” Ian tried to argue, but Svetlana wasn’t having it.

“It does not matter, it is none of business, none of yours and none of mine. What matters is you tell no one what you know. You keep your mouth shut.” She spoke in a punishing rhythm, biting out the words until Ian began to feed off the obvious fear in her voice.

Once again, Ian was reminded of the vast gaps in their experience. Svetlana was only a few years older than Ian, but the things she’d seen and done and come to know in that time represented a vast ocean of difference. She’d worked in a brothel in Russia since she was thirteen, for fuck’s sake. Her view on hooking, on the police, on loyalty and keeping your mouth shut, it went past old school and bordered on biblical, and Ian was left to decide now, as always, if she was overreacting or shining a light on his own naiveté.

“We never speak of this after,” Svetlana vowed. Then she paused, and her next question was suspicious. “Where did you find this girl, Ian?”

He put off answering for a minute, then caved, knowing that he was fueling the flames of one of their most long-standing arguments: the locations where Ian agreed to meet his tricks. “Off Pulaski, in Humboldt Park.”

Svetlana hung up on him. Ian looked at the silent phone in his hand, unsurprised, then sighed and snapped it shut, stuffing it in his pocket. He got dressed distractedly, frowning as he went over his conversation with Svetlana. He was so in his own head, he didn’t hear the knocking on the door to his motel room for a minute or so.

He jumped. Cautiously, contact paranoia from Svetlana still making his blood run fast, he peeked through the peephole, before he saw who it was and a whole other type of anxiety washing over him.

Ian opened the door a crack, nodding at Larry, the owner of the motel, on the other side. Larry never looked happy. Larry always looked like he was about to embark on some terrible, thankless task, and today was no different.

“Ian, today’s Thursday,” Larry said, seeming equally nervous and irritated. He ran a hand over his shiny bald head.

“I know what day it is, Larry,” Ian said. He knew Larry wanted him to genuflect, beg for more time, promise him he'd get the money somehow, but he wasn’t about to give his landlord the satisfaction.

Larry seemed to realize that, and straightened up, glaring at Ian. “If you don’t have the money, be out of here by five or I’m calling the cops.”

Ian shut the door in his face. It was more or less what he expected, but it wasn’t like he was going to observe the proprieties with some asshole who was about to kick him out on his ass.

Instead, he slid down with his back against the door until his ass hit the floor. Fuck. He was so fucked. He rubbed the heels of his hands into his eyes until he saw bright, sparking lights.

Idly, because he needed to distract himself from his panic, he wondered what Mickey was doing. His phone was still clasped in his hand, and he looked down at it. He stared at it for at least five minutes, before he hauled himself up, throwing his handful of belongings into his backpack, stealing two towels from the bathroom and a pillow off the bed, and left the motel room.

 

****

 

Mickey was back on the L, heading back to his apartment by Garfield Park, when his pocket vibrated. It made him jump and scramble to pull his phone out, his heart pounding even as he chastised himself for being a stupid fucking pussy, and besides, it was probably his uncle, anyway, no need to get excited.

The phone said IAN. Mickey swallowed.

“Gallagher?” he said into the phone.

“There’s nothing in the newspapers about any dead girls from last night,” Ian said without preamble.

Mickey felt a little slow on the uptake. “Okay?” He frowned. “Where are you right now?”

“At the library.” There was the sound of a slow breath on the other side of the call, the unmistakable exhale of smoke. “Well, I’m outside the library, really. But Mickey, I checked the Tribune and the Sun Times and there’s a few incident reports from last night even, a robbery and some assaults that were published online, but there’s nothing. Nothing about a girl with no hands.”

Mickey hunched over the phone, even though no one was sitting next to him on the train and even if they were, they wouldn’t be able to hear or connect what Ian was saying with last night, but still. Hearing Ian talk so openly about it made him suddenly suspicious of the entire Red Line.

Meanwhile, Ian didn’t seem to notice his silence. “Fuck, Mick, do you think that means the police just haven't published the incident report? Or that there wasn’t one? Jesus, it’s like she didn’t even exist, there’s nothing online.”

Finally, Mickey cut in. “Man, calm down,” he said, somewhat uselessly, since Ian didn’t sound panicked, necessarily, just tense. Mickey didn’t like that, that Ian seemed upset, which made him scowl. “Why do you give a fuck if it’s in the paper or not? It’s none of our fucking business.”

“I mean, it’s kind of our fucking business. It’s mine, I guess, I was the asshole who practically stumbled upon her,” Ian said.

“Yeah, but the cops are handling it now,” Mickey said, then hedged, “Well, as much as those fuckers handle anything.”

“Which is fuck all, essentially,” Ian retorted, and Mickey couldn’t help but snort in response.

“But seriously. We called it in, what the fuck does it matter now?” Mickey asked, somewhat rhetorically.

Mickey didn’t really get why Ian had called him, or why they were talking about last night (it felt taboo, the whole night was like some sideways hallucination and hearing Ian talk about it just made it feel more real and even more bizarre), but he also felt relieved to be talking to Ian at all.

For his part, Ian seemed frustrated. “Dude, it matters because I work in that neighborhood. Jesus, I got a client near there tonight.”

Mickey didn’t know what to say to that. He still didn’t know how he felt about Ian’s casual revelation that he was sleeping around for money these days. Mickey was still reeling about having a sex dream that featured another human being in it, let alone the concept of actual physical transactional sex with another human being. Because sex itself, especially casual sex, was something Mickey tried to never think about.

Hooking was so far outside the orbit of Mickey’s life he felt like an alien.

“I want to look into it,” Ian said, so out of left field that Mickey smiled at what he assumed was an obvious, absurd joke.

Mickey snorted. “Okay, Nancy Drew.”

“I’m serious,” Ian insisted. He didn’t sound like he was kidding, but maybe his humor just got real dry since high school or something.

“Yeah, me too,” Mickey said, actually smiling now. “Let me go get Scoob and the gang and we can get right on that.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. Ian coughed on his side of the phone.

“Are you fucking kidding me right now, Gallagher?” Mickey said flatly.

“Just hear me out,” Ian began insistently, but Mickey didn’t want to hear it. Because he had this sudden, vivid picture in his head of Ian, tall and skinny and not dressed for the cold in his stupid, baggy tank top poking through back alleys and pretending to be a fucking detective by himself, vulnerable and alone like a fucking idiot, and it made Mickey’s whole chest get tight.

“No, you fucking hear me out, you asshole. Whatever you’re thinking about doing, just let it go. Right now. All of it. Whatever the hell that was last night, that was fucked up, yeah, but it’s none of our business. None of yours and none of mind, so shut the fuck up about it,” Mickey said, and he was speaking loudly and heatedly enough that the middle-aged couple sitting a few rows ahead of him turned around to look at him, wide-eyed. He glared at them, but forcibly made himself unclench his fist not holding his phone.

On his end, Ian was silent for second, and then the asshole had the nerve to fucking chuckle.

“What’s so goddamn funny?” Mickey demanded.

“It’s nothing, nothing’s funny,” Ian insisted, but Mickey could hear the smile in his voice, and all of sudden he was biting back a grin of his own. “It’s just, you sound just like a friend of mine.”

“Well, if your friend doesn’t think you should get your narrow ass involved in shit that isn't any of your damn business, then your friend sounds like a motherfucking genius,” Mickey said.

Ian sighed. “I don’t mean we need to go sleuthing, that wasn’t what a meant. But like, would it be the end of the world if I just, I don’t know, tried to find out who she was?”

Mickey opened and closed his mouth in stupefied horror for a second before he managed to growl out, “Fuck, Ian. I don’t remember you being this dumb.”

“Well, I do remember you being this bossy,” Ian said. And there it was again, that smile in his voice. Mickey was hit with an unthinkable thought: was Ian flirting with him? Fuck, was Ian flirting with him? The very idea made Mickey’s face flush bright red so fast it actually hurt his skin, and he hoped to god it was from sudden rage.

“Look, I have to work tonight, but could I come over before?” Ian said, unaware of Mickey’s internal struggle, surprising Mickey at the suggestion.

“Yeah, fucking invite yourself over, that’s fine,” Mickey said, trying to force his usual irritation. It sounded hollow to him.

Ian made a sound that was strained, embarrassed even. “I wouldn’t normally, I swear I'd invite you over to my place or something, I’m just kind of…in between a place to stay right now.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“Don’t worry about it. Just, come on man, I’m going crazy over here. It’s like I made it all up, you know? It’s like a fucking nightmare, and I just need to…talk about it. Or fuck, not talk about it, just see the one other person who saw it, too,” Ian struggled to explain, and in spite of himself, Mickey got it. It felt good to confirm that he hadn’t made the whole thing up himself, either. Ian’s voice went soft. “Please, Mick.”

“I’ll text you my address,” Mickey said. The words were out of his mouth before he even considered the implications of saying them. It was like a chain reaction that moved too quick to see with the naked eye: Ian asked for a favor, Mickey complied, end of. It left him feeling light-headed.

“Man, that’s great. I’ll see you in a couple hours, that cool?”

Mickey made a vague sound of assent, still feeling stunned, and Ian said goodbye and hung up in a hurry, like he was afraid Mickey would rescind the offer if he idled too long. Mickey wasn’t really sure what had just happened, and he almost missed his stop again, jumping up from his seat just as the doors were closing.

He thought it was probably a bad idea to have Ian over. The kid seemed to be a fucking trouble magnet, he told himself, not to mention that he clearly had no sense of self-preservation if he wanted to fucking dig around about a recent, brutal murder.

Most of all, the idea of seeing Ian in the flesh made Mickey’s heart start to pound, his dream from earlier still unbearably fresh in his mind. By the time he got to the block his apartment building was on, he decided to blow Ian off. As he pulled out his keys to unlock his door, he decided ignoring the whole situation was for the best.

But when Mickey got inside and closed the door behind him, he pulled out his phone and texted Ian his address before he had the chance to stop himself.

Chapter Text

To get to Mickey’s house, Ian didn’t necessarily need to cut through Humboldt Park. He could’ve easily looped around, or jumped the turnstile to take the L (he realized it was a new low that he could no longer afford public transit, but he also thought it was fucked up that the CTA had jacked up their prices for the second time this year, so he liked to pretend it was a political protest), but he didn’t do either of those things. Instead, he let the magnetic pull of the other night and the memory of the girl drag him like an undertow.

He didn’t walk directly past the alleyway near Pulaski where he’d originally found the body. Instead he walked a few blocks east, but it nevertheless felt like he was about to stumble upon something terrible at any second. It still felt like there were eyes trained on the point right between his shoulder blades.

It was just starting to get dark out, the streets heavy with rush hour traffic and pedestrians. Nobody was staring at him any more than one stranger acknowledging another would. He was being paranoid. Ian repeated it over and over to himself like a mantra as he shoved his hands in the pocket of his jeans, his overstuffed backpack bopping awkwardly on his shoulders. You’re being paranoid. You’re being paranoid. Everything is fine.

The thing about paranoia though, he supposed, is that if you were actually able to talk yourself out of it through sheer force of will, it wouldn’t really be a thing anymore, would it?

Needless to say, he was hit with a flush of relief when he found himself standing at the stoop outside Mickey’s apartment building.

He tried to ignore the lingering guilt for relentlessly dragging Mickey back into his weird life as he stepped forward to press the buzzer for Mickey’s apartment in one fluid motion. There would be time for the guilt later, when he was trying in vain to fall asleep and forget everything for a few precious hours.

The buzzer sounded and Ian went upstairs. It was kind of a shitty building, with stains on the carpet in the hallway and the distinct scent of mice, but then, Ian had just been more or less evicted from his own flophouse, so he wasn’t really in a position to pass too much judgment.

Mickey was waiting in his doorway, leaning against the door with his left shoulder and biting the nails on his right hand a little obsessively.

“Hey,” Ian said, coming to a halt in front of him. He raised a hand in a weak wave, feeling like a tool.

“You just can’t stay away, can you?” Mickey said, but the determined neutral tone of his voice fell flat. His eyes darted from Ian’s face to his heavy backpack, then down to the ground.

“Eh, you know how it is, you see a pretty face, you can’t get it out of your head, et cetera, et cetera,” Ian replied, also trying and failing to achieve a blithe nonchalance. They were a pretty pathetic pair at this, he thought, grimacing internally.

“Fuck off with that shit,” Mickey said in a huff, spinning around and stalking inside, but not before Ian spotted a flush working its way up the pale skin of Mickey’s throat and jaw.

He didn’t slam the door behind him either, so Ian figured it was as clear an invitation as any to follow him in.

Inside, Ian glanced around and decided that if there was one word to describe Mickey’s place, it was sparse. There were two stools in the kitchen and a grungy tweed couch in the living room facing the biggest, chunkiest TV he’d seen in real life. That was it. Peaking in through the door to what he assumed was the bedroom, he spotted a mattress sitting cockeyed against the far wall, grey sheets tangled on its surface. It wasn’t like Ian harbored a burning interest in interior design, but he felt like he was standing in the world’s saddest living space.

“You want a beer?” Mickey asked from the kitchen.

Ian blinked, a little startled by the hospitality. “Sure, man. Thanks.”

He dropped his stuff at the door and settled into the couch. Mickey joined him and handed him a beer before sitting down too. They had a few blessed moments of activity-filled silence while they both screwed off the tops to their bottles and took a few gulps, and then there was nothing more to do but sit in awkward silence.

Ian wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, if he’d thought there’d be some kind of automatic relief in seeing Mickey again, in being near the one other person who’d seen what he’d seen. Whatever he'd expected, it certainly wasn’t this uncomfortable tension they had going on right now.

Finally Mickey coughed, breaking first. “So. How was your day?”

Ian almost laughed, because what could he say? Man, it was another red-letter day for Ian Gallagher, let me tell you. I pissed off my best friend, I got kicked out of the shitty motel where I was crashing, I felt like I was being watched all day to the point I'm pretty confident I might be going fucking insane. And then I dragged you into everything again, even though I should just leave you the hell alone. All in all, another one for the books.

“It was okay,” he said aloud. He nodded at Mickey, who was glancing at Ian and then glancing away just as quickly, a habit of his that was already becoming familiar, like Mickey didn’t want his gaze to rest on Ian for more than a heartbeat at a time. “How about yours?”

“Boring as shit,” Mickey said sharply, and this time Ian actually laughed. There was something about Mickey’s grumpy voice, his perma-scowl, that just cracked Ian up. That made Ian feel almost normal, for a split second. Maybe this was what kept drawing Ian back to Mickey like a magnet.

Of course, Ian’s laughter just made Mickey scowl harder. “The fuck you laughing at, asshole?”

Ian took another drink of his beer, still smiling. “You’re just funny, that’s all.”

Mickey didn’t seem to know what to do with that, and Ian took pity on him, setting his beer down with purpose. “You got internet in here?”

Mickey nodded and reached down to stick his hand under the couch. Ian surreptitiously let his eyes linger on the strip of pale bare skin where Mickey’s t-shirt gapped as he bent over. He remembered how back in the day he used to stare at Mickey whenever the other boy had bothered to show up for chemistry, Ian sure he was obvious as hell about it but unable to keep his eyes from lingering just as they were now.

Mickey straightened up again, holding possibly the oldest laptop Ian had ever seen in his lap.

He couldn’t help but chuckle. “Is that…am I looking at the legacy personal computer?”

“Shut it,” Mickey said tiredly, like Ian was definitely not the first person to make fun of the age of the machine in his lap.

“No seriously, is that the first laptop in the world? Like, the prototype that started it all? Does Bill Gates know you have that thing?”

Heaving a sigh, Mickey cocked his head to the side, waiting for Ian to power down. “You get it all out of your system?”

Ian smiled. “Yes.” Then he held up a finger. “Wait! Will it make the old-timey dial up connection sound when we log on?” He curled his finger back into his palm and settled both hands in his lap. “Okay, now I’m done.”

Mickey rolled his eyes and opened the lid, pressing the ON button with a little extra force. He turned to Ian as the computer booted up. “We have to wait a minute.”

“I bet we do,” Ian couldn’t help but chirp. Mickey leveled him with a glare as he finally lost his temper.

“You know what, fuck you, it was a free goddamn computer, my brothers stole it a few years ago and just because it’s not like greased fucking lightning doesn’t mean it’s not reliable—” Mickey bit off his rant, taking a deep breath. Ian tried to dampen his smile, but it was tough. He was enchanted. Ian got the feeling he could get addicted to watching Mickey get all wound up if he wasn’t careful. Mickey started chewing on his lip absently. “What do we need the internet for, anyway?”

“I wanted to show you what I found earlier,” Ian said, reaching forward to pull the computer onto his lap, “or really, what I didn’t find.”

He watched Mickey purse his lips even as he released the computer into Ian’s grip, obviously biting back at least half a dozen responses most likely related to how Ian was basically doing the opposite of minding his own business like Mickey had suggested. Ian was pretty impressed by his self-control. He waited a beat to see if Mickey had anything to say, but he seemed content to look on in disapproval as Ian pulled up a browser and began typing in search terms from earlier.

“Okay, so if you go to the main Chicago police website, there’s a section for press releases and stuff from their communications officer. There's a few incident reports, but you have to file a Freedom Of Information Act for most of them."

"USA, USA," Mickey chanted beside him. Ian rolled his eyes.

"Anyway, there’s nothing about a female murder victim on here.”

“So? Maybe they just haven’t put it up yet," Mickey cut in. "Maybe there’s a lag between updates, especially if you have to fucking request it."

Ian smiled at him, pleased that Mickey was at least interested enough to ask questions. “That’s what I thought, but there’s other stuff here. A few burglaries, a handful of shootings—I mean, it is Chicago after all—and some other shit, there’s even…” he paused, scrolling down until he found what he was looking for, “two homicides, a stabbing and a shooting.” He looked up at Mickey, who was leaning closer now, eyebrows furrowed as he scanned the computer screen.

“How many reports are from last night?” Mickey asked.

Ian dragged his finger over the track pad, counting softly under his breath. “Less than ten.”

Mickey shrugged. “Well, there’s no way that is all the crime from the entire city of Chicago on a Wednesday. I don’t know shit about police regulations outside of Miranda rights, so I don’t know if these assholes need to publish every incident right away, or if they can sit on it if there’s an open investigation or whatever.”

Ian nodded, considering. Mickey had a point, and he’d never really thought about it. Ian didn’t know if the police were obligated to release all crime reports immediately. Before he could open a new tab to Google it, Mickey was speaking again.

“But there wasn’t anything in the papers? Sometimes reporters have connections in the precinct and get stories out about shit before anything's released officially,” he said.

Ian couldn’t help it. He stared at Mickey in surprise. “How the hell do you know that?”

Mickey scrubbed his hand through his hair uncomfortably. “My Uncle Ronnie, he’s always bitching about the old days when this one reporter at the Sun Times always knew details about his racketeering trial before Ronnie did, it’s not a big deal.”

The name “Ronnie” sent a spark of vague recognition through Ian’s mind. He opened his mouth to ask, his attention diverted, but Mickey didn’t give him the chance.

Anyway,” Mickey said pointedly, “all I’m saying is, there’s a million reasons why there wasn’t anything in the paper.”

“Maybe.” Ian waited a beat, hesitating before he revealed the other direction his research that afternoon had taken. “But the girl, she was a hooker.” Ian went carefully still, waiting for some kind of reaction, he didn’t know what.

“How do you know that?” Mickey asked. He didn’t sound combative, just curious.

Ian struggled to explain in concrete terms what, to an outside observer, would probably sound like some flimsy fucking evidence. “Just, the way she looked. How she was dressed. It was cold out, and she barely had any clothes on.”

“Neither did you,” Mickey pointed out, which made Ian raise his eyebrows.

“Exactly, dude. And the fact that she was a teenage white girl hanging out after midnight in that corner of Humboldt Park, I mean, assuming that’s where she was originally attacked and she wasn’t,” Ian swallowed a little, “killed somewhere else first.”

He paused, not wanting to go into too much more detail. After a year and change working this life, he could spot another twink for hire or a girl on the job the way he recognized himself in the mirror. The more he’d thought about it, gone over the details in his head, he was almost certain that the most startling thing about her, other than her wounds and the fact that she was dead, was that she looked like countless other friends of Ian’s who were sex workers. Maybe he was projecting, seeing what he expected to see because he was spooked and suspicious. He doubted it, though.

“Okay fine, let’s assume she’s a hooker.” Mickey held his hands out in a now-what gesture and Ian exhaled gratefully at Mickey’s momentary easy acceptance. “Why the hell would that even matter, in terms of us looking for stuff online?”

Ian took a breath, worried he was about to reach Svetlana-levels of antiestablishment paranoia, and took the leap. “Because if she was a hooker, there’s a chance the cops or the papers or anybody else might not care as much, at least not right away.”

Even Mickey seemed startled by the implications of Ian’s words. “Shit, dude. That’s a fucking bleak-ass assumption,” Mickey said carefully.

Ian pushed the computer off his lap, suddenly feeling the need to pace. He rubbed both hands over his face. “I know it sounds like I’m being fucking dramatic—”

“I don’t think that,” Mickey interrupted. He was frowning at Ian’s obvious agitation. “Why would I think that? We fucking found a dead body with no hands. The time for dramatics is kind of behind us, don’t you think?”

It was amazing how much Mickey’s trust, or at least his temporary willingness to play along with Ian’s working hypothesis, calmed Ian down. He felt immediately less jittery, letting himself settle back on the couch again after a minute.

“So I was looking into it more, about people who hurt working girls and stuff, and there’s tons of stuff on the forums, like where I find clients and stuff, I mean that’s why most hookers I know use referrals and require references—” Ian cut himself off, realizing that he was revealing more about his own life than he’d like, when really he wanted to focus on the girl.

Mickey was watching him babble with a strange expression on his face that Ian couldn’t quite place. If nothing else, he looked unwittingly fascinated and Ian was quietly glad for the captive audience as he rambled.

“Anyway, so if you just search more generally, you fall down a rabbit hole of Jack the Ripper and the Long Beach serial killer and a ton of other horrible stories about prostitutes getting murdered and a pattern of everybody else generally not giving a shit about it. Which is disheartening, let me tell you, especially if you, yourself, happen to be a prostitute,” Ian said. He tried to keep his tone light, but he was feeling shaky and disoriented scrolling down the search page, like he’d felt earlier at the library.

“I’m just saying,” he finished lamely. Even though he didn’t really know what he was saying. It felt like the thing to say after holding a virtual stranger hostage in his own home and babbling at him uncontrollably for nearly half an hour.

Ian wasn’t surprised to see that Mickey seemed a little bowled over. Mickey sat back against the couch, setting the computer beside him, running his hands over his head again until the inky shocks of his hair stood up in spikes. The laptop’s motor whirred loudly in the otherwise quiet apartment, sending heat wafting against Ian’s hip. “Well, shit,” Mickey said after a while.

“I’d say that’s an accurate summary, yeah,” Ian said. Now that his thoughts were out there, floating in the atmosphere of Mickey’s home, Ian’s chest felt looser. It was why he’d called Mickey earlier when he’d gone out for a cigarette in front of the library, frustrated at the lack of information and his own uncertainty on what to do next, if there even was anything he could do next. It felt good to talk it out. Maybe he was hearing hoof beats and thinking zebras rather than horses, but at least now that Mickey knew where Ian’s head was at, they could attack this together.

Mickey, however, did not seem similarly energized to fight crime. He pulled his hands from his hair, rubbing his palms twice against his jeans in a decisive motion. “You eaten?” he asked Ian abruptly.

“Um.” Ian had to think about it, food being the last thing on his mind today. “Not since the pancakes I guess, no.”

Mickey gave him a supremely unimpressed look. “Seriously, Gallagher? You gotta take better care of yourself than that, jesus.”

Ian tried to protest. “You don’t need to—”

“Just let me fucking cook for you, jackass,” Mickey said irritably, waving away Ian’s protests over his shoulder as he headed toward the fridge. “You need to fuel up for a long night of gargling old man balls, huh?” He glanced back at Ian, grinning, clearly proud of his joke, and the sight kind of made Ian breathless. Mickey had a gorgeous smile.

A ping from Ian’s cellphone distracted him. He pulled it out, saw a message from his first trick of the night, saying Ian didn’t need to come over until seven. Which was a relief, as Ian breathed in through his nose and noticed that he kind of smelled like a foot.

“Yo, you care if I shower real quick?” he called to Mickey.

“Yeah, whatever,” Mickey called back. His head was half in the fridge, rooting around as a pot began to steam on the stove. He seemed almost alarmingly at ease in the kitchen. It didn't align with the idea he'd carried of the Mickey he thought he knew from high school, but Ian supposed he hadn't been working with an over-abundance of information then.

The shower had the water pressure of an old woman softly weeping on Ian’s shoulders, but he lingered anyway, inhaling through his nose as he used Mickey’s toiletries to lather up and rinse the day off of him. With a weird quirk of sense memory, Ian recognized the Irish Spring scent of Mickey’s body wash, remembering how he used to take deep inhales as Mickey sat next to him in class, the shorter boy doodling swear words and drawings of penises in the margins of their shared chemistry book. It gave him an undeniable sense of satisfaction to have the scent on his body now.

As he got out to dry off, using the single towel he saw hooked over the back of the door (he was willing to bet his left arm it was the only towel in the entire apartment), he could smell something delicious coming from the kitchen.

He pulled his jeans back on, going commando like he normally did for work, and strolled back into the living room without a shirt on.

“Dude, that smells fucking amazing,” he said.

Mickey turned around, a half-smile on his face. “Eh, it’s just brats…” he trailed off, his smile dropping as his eyes landed on Ian. He looked almost skittish, looking anywhere but at Ian’s bare chest, a blush rising up his neck.

His obvious discomfort made Ian hurry to pull a shirt from his backpack over his head. Mickey seemed relieved when he was clothed again, which Ian privately thought was a little odd. He was pretty sure Mickey was gay. He’d thought so since high school, and while it might have been wishful thinking back then, the obvious awareness between them now made Ian almost positive there was something less than straight there. And yet, something was off.

“I’m telling you, you didn’t have to cook for me, man,” Ian said, trying to smooth over the moment. His mouth was already watering at the thought of an actual meal that didn’t come out of a microwave.

“And I’m telling you, it’s not a big deal. You gotta eat.” Mickey scraped a skillet of fried onions onto a plate and used an oven mitt to pull a tray of toasted buns out of the oven. He lifted four brats out of the pot and set them on the plate with the onions, then carried everything to the counter, looking at the stool and back up at Ian in quickly growing impatience. “Move your ass, Gallagher, it’s getting cold.”

Ian didn’t wait to be told twice, sliding into the stool and grabbing for a brat to stuff it in a toasted bun. Mickey set out mustard, watching in amusement as Ian scooped onions on the sausage and took a huge bite, hissing as the food burned the roof of his mouth. He didn’t care, though. He was starving.

“Did you boil these in beer?” Ian asked in disbelief, closing his eyes as he chewed the succulent brat. “Jesus christ.”

“Is the pope a motherfucking Catholic?” Mickey asked, grinning. He seemed content to watch Ian wolf down his food. Fiona had always told him he ate like a truck driver, but Ian was too busy eating to feel too self-conscious about his eating habits.

Finally he noticed that Mickey hadn’t reached for a brat yet. “Aren’t you going to eat?”

Mickey shook his head. “Naw, man. I got a slice of pizza on my way home earlier.”

Ian went still at the admission that Mickey had cooked for no other reason than for Ian to have something to eat. He focused on making another brat for himself, feeling a blotchy flush working its way across his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. He never blushed anymore, fuck.

As Ian squirmed a little in his seat, Mickey finally appeared to grow bored of watching Ian eat and wandered back to the couch, bending to stick the ancient laptop back under the couch as Ian watched him furtively. Mickey glanced at Ian’s overflowing backpack where it lay by the door. He tilted his head, studying it, then looked at Ian.

“Are those pillows in there?”

Ian shrugged noncommittally. “Good eye, man.”

“What, are you a hobo now? You living in an abandoned boxcar?” Mickey’s tone was joking, but he was watching Ian carefully, and now Ian was the one to avoid his gaze.

“No, I’m just going to stay with my friend Svetlana tonight,” Ian said. He hadn’t told Svetlana that yet, but she wouldn’t turn him away, no matter how sour she’d been earlier. Ian wasn’t looking forward to sharing a studio apartment with Svetlana and her five loud Russian roommates, but he wasn’t exactly holding down property of his own anymore.

“You weren’t kidding about being between places to stay, huh?” Mickey pressed.

Ian sighed, resigned. “It’s not a big deal, trust me.”

Mickey looked unconvinced, so Ian stuffed the rest of his second brat into his mouth so he couldn’t answer any questions. Mickey came back to the counter, gesturing at the remaining brats. “Go ahead, kill the rest of them,” he said.

Ian smiled even though his mouth was full, making Mickey grimace. “Good lord, close your mouth, you animal.”

That made Ian smile even wider, laughing, feeling suddenly light and happy and pleasantly full. He didn’t think he’d felt stuffed like this since he’d moved out of Fiona’s, back in the neighborhood. And then a stray thought bounced through his head, at the thought where he used to live, the people in the neighborhood, and he swallowed so quickly his throat ached.

“Wait. Ukranian Mafia Uncle Ronnie? Your fucking Uncle Ronnie the fucking mafia enforcer Ronnie? That Ronnie?” Ian said in an excited rush. “Holy shit, that name is clicking for me now. Holy shit.” Even in the relative criminal underworld of Ian’s old neighborhood, Ronnie had been a legend. An infamous legend, but a legend nonetheless, lending heft to the Milkovich name in the South Side that even Mickey’s dad and brothers couldn’t outshine.

Mickey rolled his eyes. “Is there like, a question buried somewhere in all of that, or are you just going to stammer like an asshole?”

But Ian was not deterred, another thought striking him. “What, are you working for your uncle now?” Mickey went silent, which Ian took as confirmation. “Holy shit, you’re working for your Uncle Ronnie,” Ian repeated, his voice a little wondering. Mickey was chewing his nail. “You’re working for the Ukrainian Mafia?”

“No, I’m not working for the mafia,” Mickey said, sticking Ian with a glare that was slightly mellowed by the fact that he was still chewing his thumbnail.

“You’re working for your Uncle Ronnie, but you’re not working for the mafia?” Ian prodded.

“It’s not the mafia, man, not since the 90s or some shit,” Mickey insisted. Ian let his head fall to the side in sarcastic disbelief, and Mickey sighed. “Fine, it’s mafia-adjacent.”

“I knew it!” Ian crowed, chowing down on his fourth and final brat even though he felt like he was about to burst. It just seemed fucking downright un-American to leave one lonely brat sitting on the plate.

Mickey grabbed the empty plates, shaking his head at Ian. “You better not go talking about me or Ronnie to anyone in the old neighborhood, or god fucking forbid, your nineteen brothers and sister, you gossipy old woman,” Mickey said.

Ian watched Mickey take the plates to the sink, his mood slightly sobered at the unlikeliness of telling his siblings anything in casual confidence anymore. “I wouldn’t worry about that, trust me.”

Mickey was still shaking his head as he went to grab the pot off the stove. Ian was halfway off his stool as he noticed that the flame was still on and the pot was probably hot, but he wasn’t quick enough and Mickey grabbed both handles with the palms of his hands.

“God fucking damnit shit!” Mickey shouted, dropping the pot back down and shaking his palms.

Ian hurried from the stool, turning on the faucet all the way to cold and grabbing Mickey’s wrists, sticking his burned palms under the running water. Mickey struggled but Ian held his grip until Mickey went still.

“Shhh, it’s cool man, just chill for a second,” Ian murmured, like he would if it was Debbie or Carl or even Liam who had burned themselves, trying to soothe Mickey with his voice.

“Shit,” Mickey muttered. Ian watched the cold water run over the bright red burns on Mickey’s palms, glad to see they weren’t as bad as they could be.

“Keep your hands under there,” Ian said once he was confident Mickey wouldn’t dart away, releasing his wrists.

“I always fucking burn myself in the kitchen, it’d be like a fucking slapstick comedy if I wasn’t the one getting burnt to shit,” Mickey said, a little petulantly. His mouth curved into a cranky scowl.

Ian moved without thinking, which was weird on its own. Ian didn’t touch people carelessly, not anymore. He moved with intent, touching to arouse or tease if he was with a trick, or to carefully comfort or support Svetlana or any of his other friends as much as their prickly personalities would allow. But now, in this moment, Ian laughed easily and reached out to push the bangs out of Mickey’s face, his fingertips lingering at the tip of Mickey’s ear.

Mickey jumped backward like he’d been shocked. Ian jerked his hand away, surprised at himself and startled by Mickey’s recoil. Mickey was looking at him with something like betrayal on his face, holding his hands curled against his chest, water dripping down his shirt and onto the floor. Ian knew, without understanding exactly why, that he’d crossed a line and he felt instantly like a total asshole.

“Shit,” Ian said under his breath, then louder. “Shit.” He stepped back, keeping his hands stiffly at his sides. “I’m sorry.” Mickey didn’t say anything, watching Ian’s retreat with wide eyes. They were both breathing a little unsteadily.

Ian kept backing up until he was almost at the door. “Shit,” he said yet again. He bent at the waist to grab his backpack and scrabbled with one hand behind his back for the doorknob. “Thanks for dinner, and for letting me coming over, and…shit, I’m sorry.”

And berating himself for being a coward, he opened the door and fled.

 

****

 

The next day, Mickey found himself wishing he’d driven back from Skokie with someone else, anyone else, other than Colin. Mostly because his brother didn’t know when to fucking shut up, and Mickey was too on edge to deal with that shit on a good day, let alone after a night full of nightmares and the splitting headache he’d been nursing since he rolled out of bed.

“Yo man, how whiny was that guy today?” Colin was saying. He was driving, swerving in and out of traffic on the highway in a way that only made Mickey’s head throb even more painfully than before. “I mean, I get that we put the hurt on him, but fucking christ, be a man about it, right?”

Mickey didn’t respond. The afternoon’s job hadn’t been as violent as he thought it might be, given his uncle’s earlier description of it. Instead, they’d just beaten the shit out of some asshole who was late on payments, and usually Mickey was all about that life. Usually, when he wasn’t headachy and out of sorts, like today.

“Such a pussy, begging us to go easy, even though you know he wouldn’t pay up even if we gave him another two weeks. Man, some people, right?” Colin cut across three lanes of traffic to catch their exit.

“For the love of god, Colin,” Mickey bit out, gripping the oh-shit handle to keep from being jostled onto the dashboard.

“Sorry, sorry,” Colin said absently. He sped through the toll, merging onto I-88. “I mean, my point is, don’t fucking take out loans you can’t pay back, am I right?”

Finally Mickey snapped. “Would just shut the fuck up for three goddamn seconds?”

Colin was silent for two. “Geez, dude, what’s with you today?”

“Nothing’s with me, I’m just fucking tired of your voice,” Mickey said. He crossed his arms and turned to stare out the window a little huffily. Miracle of miracles, Colin quieted down, an air of hurt around him at Mickey’s outburst. Which made Mickey feel guilty, and fuck if he wasn’t going soft faster than an overripe tomato.

He watched the scenery outside the car window change from fields to sprawling suburban lawns to buildings as they got back into the city, not really noticing details, his head a mess from the night before.

After Ian had left the previous night, Mickey had had the worst night's sleep he'd experienced in months. He’d been overwhelmingly anxious about going to sleep, too worried he’d dream of Ian again, but when he did finally pass out he’d had nightmare after nightmare instead. They’d been almost as bad as they were in the first few months after he’d moved out of his dad’s house.

He rarely remembered anything more than sounds and colors, the nightmares tripping through his unconscious mind one after another until he finally woke up in the morning gasping and trembling, yanking himself forcibly awake. That was worst part, the feeling that he was trapped in his own mind, unable to escape until the dreams themselves decided to let him go.

“Seriously man, are you okay?” Colin said, breaking into Mickey’s thoughts.

Mickey flinched and was immediately embarrassed at the tell. “I’m fine,” he said sharply, then forced himself to take another breath until it was closer to the truth. “Seriously. I’m fine.”

Colin seemed unconvinced, and he gave Mickey a searching look when he dropped him off in front of his apartment. Of all his brothers, Colin was the only one who still talked to him, and Mickey hated when he worried. Colin was only older by a year, and Mickey had always bossed him around, even as kids, but Colin had taken on the role of his keeper these days, since Mickey had moved out of the neighborhood. It was suffocating sometimes, being the source of someone else’s worry like that.

Mickey threw a wave over his shoulder without looking back as he let himself into his building.

Inside his apartment, he threw himself down on the couch, pulling his phone out of his pocket to check for messages for what felt like the fortieth time that day. No messages from anyone, not even some asshole who had barged into his apartment, eaten the last of the bratwurst and nearly given Mickey a goddamn heart attack with his casual, uninvited, mind-boggling affection.

He was cool with it, really. He barely knew Ian. There was no reason for the redheaded moron to text him every minute of the day. Sure, he’d needed someone to bounce some murder-related ideas off the day before, but it wasn’t like he needed Mickey as more than just a sounding board. So he was cool with the radio silence. For real. He was.

In the interest of being thorough, Mickey opened his inbox and scrolled through the read messages, just in case he’d somehow missed one. He hadn’t. He flipped it closed and got off the couch, walking restlessly into the kitchen to make goulash.

It was a mindless task, the recipe one he knew backwards and forwards and sideways from all the times he’d made it with his mom growing up. It gave him way too much time to think.

The longer he thought, the more suspicious he felt. He ran over Ian’s words from the evening before, his mind instinctively skipping over the humiliating end when Ian had touched Mickey’s face and Mickey’s brain had short-circuited and he’d leapt away like a fucking lunatic.

Ian had seemed fixated on the dead girl. That was the only way to describe it. If he were smart, he would put it out of his mind like Mickey was trying to do. There was nothing to be gained from Ian inserting himself in the misery of other people’s lives, when his own life appeared to be rife with its own sizeable tragedies.

He didn’t think Ian would do that, though. The more he thought about it, the more he began to become obsessed with the fact that not only would Ian probably not drop it, he’d probably do something pretty fucking stupid instead. Mickey wasn’t sure what specifically, but he was confident that it would be reckless and dumb, at least in a general sense.

Once the goulash was in the oven, Mickey puttered around the kitchen. A hunch was forming in his mind, and he didn’t like it. He didn’t like it, and the more he turned it over, the more convinced he became, almost with a sinking feeling, that it was accurate.

The goulash needed to roast on low for at least a few hours, and after a brief deliberation about the merits of leaving the oven on when he left the house (not his smartest move, but on balance, also not his dumbest, so he figured it was a draw), Mickey turned off the oven but opened the door to stick a lid on the pot so it would keep for a bit.

Feeling like an alarmist, but not able to shake his suspicion, he put his jacket back on. He locked up his apartment and headed out, trying not to overthink. He was just going to check. Nothing wrong with a quick walk-by.

It took nearly an hour on the Green Line to get to the right precinct, the one he figured must cover the alleyway where Ian had first found the dead girl. If memory served, he didn’t think there was a homicide division there, but a redheaded idiot with a hero complex might not think that far ahead, he thought cantankerously.

If word got back to Ronnie that Mickey was voluntarily strolling into a police department in the middle of the day, there would be fucking hell to pay, Mickey knew. He felt uncomfortable just walking through the door. Just a quick glance around, he told himself, just to confirm that his hunch was dumb, and then he’d cruise right back out of there.

He was barely inside when he heard the familiar dumb voice that had started all of this, just a few days ago outside the liquor store.

“But you were the one who told me you found a dead body near Pulaski the other night,” Ian was saying hotly from his place near the front of the office, his fist pressed against the countertop of the front desk.

Behind the countertop, smirking at Ian in an already irritatingly familiar fashion, was that goddamn mick cop from the night before, O’Reilly.

“What, are you saying you have something to report? I thought you weren’t a witness,” O’Reilly said.

“I’m not a witness, I’m just asking if you found out her name yet,” Ian said.

Mickey drew closer, trying to keep out of sight while he listened intently to the conversation. The front hallway of the precinct wasn’t too busy for a Friday, so he stayed back near a bench.

“That’s a confidential police matter, so don’t you worry your pretty little head about it,” the cop said smugly.

Now that he was closer, Mickey could see Ian had his overstuffed backpack with the pillows at his side again. He was wearing the same clothes from the night before when he’d showered at Mickey’s apartment.

“Does that mean you don’t know, then?” Ian asked. His foot was tapping anxiously next to his bag on the floor.

O’Reilly’s expression went incrementally harder. “Like I said, it’s a police matter.”

“I’m just saying, have you talked to anybody over near where you found her? Any of the girls who were working that night? They’d probably know who she is.” Ian's voice was level, but Mickey could hear the frustration loud and clear.

“I’ll bring it up with my supervisor,” the cop said airily, already turning back to the papers on the counter in front of him before he finished his sentence.

He wasn’t going to look into this. Mickey knew it as sure as he knew anything. He thought back to what Ian had said the night before, the certainty in his voice when he’d said people didn’t give a shit what happened to hookers. This cop wasn’t going to look into dick. The way O’Reilly looked at Ian, it was clear he thought Ian was just a whore too, nothing more. Mickey could practically hear what the cop must be thinking: Why would the Chicago PD work up too much sweat following up on some teenaged hooker's death?

Mickey could see the moment when Ian was about to snap, and he was moving forward before he told his legs to stand. Someone beat him to the punch, though.

“Ian!” A blond cop in his early twenties was striding up from the back of the office, coming to stand next to O’Reilly behind the counter. He looked vaguely familiar to Mickey. He must be from the old neighborhood, or maybe he had arrested Mickey or his brothers before. It could go either way.

“Oh. Hey, Tony,” Ian said. He sounded distracted, his focus still on O’Reilly, who was pointedly ignoring him now.

“How’s it going, buddy?” Tony asked, his tone effusively friendly, and Mickey rolled his eyes. What a fucking goober.

“It’s going okay man, good to see you,” Ian said. He watched O’Reilly stack his papers into a careful pile.

After a long pause, O’Reilly finally looked up and met Ian’s eye with a nasty smirk. “You take it easy now, Gallagher. I’m sure you’ve got to get to work soon.”

Ian didn’t even flinch, which Mickey found impressive, because his own hands were curling into fists as he watched O’Reilly turn on his heel and walk away from the front desk without a second look.

Beside Ian, Tony was looking apologetic. “Sorry about that guy, O’Reilly’s kind of a hardass.” He put a careful hand on Ian’s shoulder. “Everything okay?”

Ian looked up at Tony, and even in profile Mickey saw something like a mask fall over Ian’s face, his expression smoothing, going openly friendly in an instant. The transition was slightly startling in its velocity.

“Everything’s good, Tony. How’s your mom?” Ian asked.

Tony grimaced, but it was good-natured. “You know, same old, same old.” He dropped his hand from Ian’s shoulder and coughed, the movement painfully obvious in its casualness. “How’s your sister doing?”

“Debbie? Debbie’s good,” Ian said, but his tone was teasing.

Tony laughed self-consciously. “Oh yeah? And how’s Fiona?”

Mickey had a sudden flash of memory, an image of Tony the doofus cop from the neighborhood following Ian’s older sister around like a puppy. It wasn’t the clearest memory, but even in its vagueness, Mickey could recall how the dude was apparently totally gone on that girl.

“She’s good too, I suppose. They’re in Michigan,” Ian said easily.

Mickey saw Tony frown as he looked away, muttering, “Michigan,” under his breath. He turned back to Ian, his smile a little weaker. “Well, tell her I say hey, I guess.”

“Will do, Tony,” Ian said. He tilted his head to the side. “Hey, what do you know about the Homicide division?”

And that was Mickey’s cue. He stepped forward, jostling Tony aside slightly as he came to stand beside Ian. Ian turned, and his cheerful mask slipped.

“Mickey? What the hell are you doing here?”

Mickey arched an eyebrow at him. “I could ask you the same question, man.”

Ian at least had the grace to look mildly ashamed. Tony was glancing between the two of them. He tried a smile on Mickey.

“You’re a Milkovich, right? Terry’s kid.”

Mickey gave him an apathetic look, because he really didn’t have time for Officer Do-Right, then turned to Ian. “If you’re done being a dumbass, you ready to head out?”

There was a long moment where Ian looked ready to tell Mickey to go fuck himself. Mickey could appreciate that. Mickey didn’t have any real right to tell Ian what to do, and technically, if the kid wanted to fuck himself over by sticking his nose where it didn’t belong, that was his business. But despite knowing that academically, Mickey looked Ian right in the eye, even though the bright green irises made him want to glance away just to catch his breath. He found himself waiting, hoping like some idiot that Ian would go with him anyway.

Finally, Ian leaned around Mickey, nodding at Tony. “Good to see you, Tony,” Ian said, smiling that same bland, friendly smile.

Tony smiled back, but he seemed unsure. “You too, Ian.”

Ian grabbed his backpack and walked out of the building without waiting to see if Mickey was following. Mickey jogged a little to catch up.

“Yo man, wait up!” he called, reaching Ian just as the other boy came to a stop at the curb. He whirled around.

“Are you stalking me now?” Ian demanded.

Mickey held his hands up. “No? I like to think I have better things to do than follow your freckled ass around.” Ian still looked suspicious, so Mickey let his hands drop. “I just had a feeling you might do something stupid.”

“Stupid how?” Ian crossed his arms. Mickey was hit with a sudden urge to give him his jacket, because the fucker was in a tight v-neck t-shirt that was doing fuck-all against the chilly fall air.

Mickey fought the urge and answered him. “Stupid like go to the cops to get more information on the dead girl when you couldn’t find anything online.”

Ian stuck his hands in his pocket, glaring down at the sidewalk. His backpack slipped down his shoulder and he shoved it back with force. Mickey eyed the pillow sticking out the top. He wondered if Ian had actually stayed at a friend’s the night before, or if he’d been on the street. Not for the first time, he noticed the thin planes of Ian’s face, and remembered how he’d scarfed down those brats from the night before like there was a gun to his head.

“Do you need a place to stay, man?” Mickey asked.

“What, you looking for a male mistress or something?” Ian shot back, sounding sassy, but Mickey just threw back his head and laughed a little.

“Definitely not,” Mickey said. Man, if only Ian knew his casual touch from the night before had been enough to send Mickey spiraling. But he didn't know that, and he gave Mickey a weird look but didn’t press the issue. He seemed too busy considering the offer. He looked tired.

“Come on, I left dinner in the oven so I could drag my ass across town to look for you, so if my apartment’s burnt to shit when I get back that’s on you. Hope you like goulash,” Mickey coaxed.

“You don’t have to swoop in and save me, you know,” Ian said. His expression was exasperated, but he seemed to be waffling. “I can take care of myself.”

Mickey didn’t doubt that. Even with his piss-poor impulse control, Ian had the look of someone who knew how to handle himself. He’d have to, to survive these last few years. But Mickey also didn’t know how to explain that even though he knew he didn’t have to step in, he wanted to anyway.

He settled on impatience, rolling his eyes at Ian’s reluctance. “Are you done with the token resistance song-and-dance yet, man? Because it’s cold as balls and I’m hungry.”

Ian glared at him, and his mouth was trembling a little bit, and for a horrifying second Mickey thought he might cry. But then he felt stupid for even thinking that, because Ian was tougher than that.

“What the fuck do you want me to say, Mick?” Ian demanded instead. “You want me to fall down in gratitude? You want me to admit that I’m fucking homeless? Is that what you want?”

Mickey started, immediately guilty. “No, I don’t want you to say that,” he said. And he didn’t. He didn’t want Ian to be so desperate he was forced to accept Mickey’s help. That wasn’t what he wanted, but that was where they were now, so he just waited.

He could pinpoint the exact moment that Ian caved with a resigned huff.

“Fine,” he said a little after that, throwing his hands up in surrender. He gave Mickey a sharp look. “But I’m taking the couch.”

Mickey laughed. “You’re goddamn right you’re taking the couch.” He started walking back toward the L station, unspeakably relieved when Ian fell silently into step beside him.

Chapter Text

Sometimes Ian had a hard time retracing the steps of his life. In the moment, when he was making them, his decisions and subsequent actions made sense, felt like they aligned with some kind of path. Looking back afterwards, though, it was more difficult to sew together the disparate parts, to identify how he got from one place to another.

Some decisions were easier to trace, simple cause and effect scenarios that made decent business sense.

He started dancing at the club because he wasn’t making dick at the Kash N Grab. He started stripping because the hours were better and the pay was higher. He started hooking because the hours were even shorter, and the money was easier than he ever imagined. Plus, it felt more honest. Dancing and stripping were just preludes to the fucking he was going to do anyway, and at least with hooking it was more formalized. He didn’t have to dance around the payment issue at the end of the night with a trick, because that was what they were looking for to begin with. It took the guesswork out of it.

Other decisions were less concrete and left Ian a little baffled by his own fluidity, like he was just a twig in a larger river, letting the current carry him wherever it wanted.

He dropped out of high school because he could, because the group home he and Lip had been placed at was out of district of his old school, so when he didn’t register at the new school he just leaned in to slip through the cracks. He left the group home ostensibly because Lip left, but really because he was bored of staying there, even though he didn’t want to go to Michigan with Fiona. He stopped dating outside of work because it felt less complicated to sleep with tricks than to keep seeing older men like Kash and Ned, with their own tricky, sticky motivations and emotions.

Following Mickey back to his apartment, his entire set of worldly possessions on his back, leaving an admittedly ill-advised trip to the police station behind him, Ian found himself trying to decide how he had gotten here, to this moment. It was difficult to say.

Mickey didn’t try to make conversation on the way home, which Ian appreciated. He felt like an open bruise, forced to accept Mickey’s hospitality even though it made him feel like a weak, stupid teenage street rat without a plan or a place to stay. Which he glumly supposed wasn’t too far off the mark.

The L ride passed quickly (a ride which Mickey paid for after a painful back and forth where Ian offered to meet Mickey at his place, he was fine to walk really, it wasn’t a big deal, and Mickey had told him not to be an asshole and passed back his CTA pass at the turnstile while Ian tried to swallow the dry chalk taste of wounded pride in his mouth) and before Ian really realized it they were back in Mickey’s dingy apartment.

It smelled faintly of heaven though, the scent of browned meat and spices wafting through the apartment, so Ian didn’t really take the time to side-eye the weird stains on the wood floor near the door. He set his bag by the couch uncertainly.

“The goulash has to cook for another hour,” Mickey said. He made an awkward gesture with his hands toward the kitchen. “There’s beer and cereal and stuff if you’re hungry now, though.”

“Beer and cereal?” Ian couldn’t help asking.

Mickey gave him a look of feigned disappointment. “You’ve never had any fucking bereal? God’s gift to mankind? Man, you are missing out.”

He chuckled, and Ian cracked a smile, beginning to feel marginally more relaxed. He checked the time on his phone anyway, trying to keep on schedule for the day.

“I have to go to work at eight,” Ian said after a moment. He only had one trick tonight, but he was a regular and he hated when Ian was late.

“That’s cool,” Mickey replied easily. “Dinner should be done before then. Besides, I have to make a run with Ronnie tonight anyway, so it’s not like I’ll be waiting up for you to come home.” He smiled a little, one corner of his mouth curling up.

He was trying so hard to put Ian at ease, and Ian wasn’t sure if he was flattered or pissed off at the effort. He was still becoming familiar with Mickey’s tics and rhythms, but he was pretty sure the other boy rarely went out of his way for other people.

Ian felt drained as he tried to puzzle it out. Ian’s run-in with O’Reilly had sapped all his energy, just like it always did whenever he had to deal with that dickhead. He didn’t really have the spunk to be too feisty with Mickey over a few clumsy attempts to make Ian feel comfortable as a houseguest.

So he collapsed on the couch, pulling at some loose threads on the hem of his t-shirt. He turned to Mickey. “What’d you do today?” he asked.

Mickey’s seemed a little startled by the innocent question. Maybe small talk was foreign to a Milkovich, Ian thought. They tended to be men of action, generally violent action. Mickey ran a hand through his hair, turning to go in the kitchen and turn the oven back on. Ian figured Mickey was just going to ignore him, but then he turned back.

“Uh, I was in Skokie. With my brother Colin and a few of Ronnie’s guys.”

“Ah, Skokie. The Paris of the Midwest,” Ian said sagely. Mickey snickered.

“Pretty much,” he agreed with a smirk.

“What was happening in Skokie?” Ian asked. He knew he was pushing it, but he was curious, and he wanted some mindless conversation for a second, something to help him feel more on an even keel with Mickey.

“I was helping out Ronnie,” Mickey said evasively.

“Yeah, I figured.” Ian tilted his head to side as he looked at Mickey. Predictably, Mickey looked away, glancing around his apartment. “Helping him out with mafia-adjacent stuff?”

Mickey gave him a look. “I never should’ve told you shit, should I?”

Ian grinned, and he was almost surprised when the expression felt easy and genuine on his face. “Nope,” he agreed, “that was your first mistake.”

Pulling two bottles of beer out of the fridge, Mickey sat on the couch next to Ian, handing him one. He pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his jean pocket with the other and lit one, taking a drag before handing it to Ian.

Ian took it, a little surprised at the familiar gesture, but maybe Mickey was just trying to save some cash. Cigarettes were expensive as hell in the city. Ian looked around at the smoke-stained walls. “So I’m guessing it’s cool to smoke inside?”

Mickey snorted. “Man, it ain’t like I threw down a fucking security deposit for this shithole.”

With a shrug, Ian inhaled and let his eyes drift shut, the smoke in his lungs making him feel light-headed and loose-limbed. He let the smoke go and opened his eyes, realizing he was still smiling. He saw Mickey was staring at him, focused on his mouth. When he saw Ian had caught him looking, he looked away sharply, reaching forward for the TV remote.

“You like Jeopardy?” Mickey asked, eyes fixed stubbornly on the screen.

“I’ve got two eyes and a heart, don’t I?” Ian said, daring to lean just a little so his shoulder nudged just the lightest bit against Mickey. Mickey startled a little, looking at Ian a little wild-eyed, but Ian leaned back right away and smiled, and Mickey seemed to settle.

Ian let himself go limp on the couch, watching Jeopardy half-assedly but without enough concentration to follow who was winning. He was too focused on watching Mickey out of the corner of his eyes, smiling at the way Mickey shouted out the answers in the form of a question, at how caught up Mickey got, swearing and chattering to Ian about how fucking stupid one of the contestants was, how that question was too fucking easy everyone knows the capital of Nebraska. Mickey actually knew a decent amount of trivia.

After a while though, Ian began to drift. He was chewing on his bottom lip, distracted thinking about fucking O’Reilly, fucking cops, fucking anything. He kept thinking back to the look on O’Reilly’s face, how he’d raised an eyebrow at Ian and then narrowed his eyes. In derision or disgust, sure, but also in dismissal. Disinterest. Like Ian didn’t matter, and like the dead girl mattered even less.

Ian didn’t realize he was grinding his teeth so loud it was audible until Mickey tapped his wrist.

“Dude, earth to weirdo,” Mickey said. Ian blinked and focused his eyes on Mickey again. He’d been asking something, but Ian was at loss as to what. “Where’d you go there, man?”

Looking down cautiously at Mickey’s hand on his wrist, Ian shrugged one shoulder. “Nowhere. What’s up?”

“You ready to eat?”

And Ian was. He let Mickey usher him to the counter. The goulash was good. Ian was a little ashamed at how surprised he was, but as he shoveled spoonfuls of steaming stewed meat and buttered noodles into his mouth, he could admit at the very least that yes, it was unexpected that Mickey could cook. It was unexpected that he’d more or less strong-armed Ian into staying with him. And not once had Ian felt like he was part of some transaction. He felt…at ease, somehow. He hadn’t felt truly at ease with anyone but Svetlana in a long time, not even Lip, especially not Lip.

Even now, Mickey was watching Ian eat with a look of satisfaction on his face. If Mickey was a trick, Ian would assume it was some kind of feeder kink, but Mickey wasn’t a trick, Ian reminded himself. In quiet surprise, Ian realized that Mickey was his friend.

If he hadn’t spotted Mickey eyeing his mouth, he’d be hard-pressed to prove that Mickey was attracted to him at all. Even with that knowledge, Ian got the feeling Mickey didn’t want anything like that from him. Maybe he wasn’t even gay, even though Ian had been so sure, but maybe that just went to show what happened when you assumed.

Still, it was a goddamn shame, because Ian was having the hardest time keeping his own eyes off Mickey’s face, his pale neck, his weirdly elegant hands. It made him feel like a voyeur, so he focused on not letting himself stare too hard.

Ian ate two bowls of goulash and let Mickey peer pressure him into a third, but he could only get through a few bites of it. He pushed it back, rubbing a hand over his taught stomach.

“Dude, uncle,” he said. “If I eat anymore, I might actually explode.”

“Pussy,” Mickey said easily, without rancor. He seemed visibly pleased by Ian’s appetite, though, or at least the knowledge that he’d let Mickey satiate it for now. It was odd, being the focus of someone else’s intense need to care-take, but Ian feared he could fast become dependent on it if he let himself.

He started clearing the table even as Mickey protested that he didn’t have to fucking worry about it, but Ian was adamant. It was the literal bare-minimum of contributions that Ian was able to give.

“Fine, I’ll dry,” Mickey relented, ignoring Ian's protests.

It was surprisingly easy, cozy even, to stand shoulder to shoulder with Mickey as Ian scrubbed the pot and plates clean, before handing them over to be dried. It was familiar, like being at home. Or better than home, because he never caught himself flirting like this with his siblings while they did the dishes.

Joking around with Mickey, splashing him with water and laughing as he retaliated, Ian was startled to hear fucking Monica in his head. His mother was a nutcase and so flighty and irresponsible it made Ian breathless, but for better or worse, she was the voice in his head he couldn’t escape. And now here she was, popping up when Ian least expected, the familiar phrase tripping through his head.

Baby, you got to count your luck sometimes.

When she was manic, she had this thing about gratitude. She would say you never know how good you got it, til you see how bad somebody else had things. She beat it into Ian’s head until it was almost a compulsive habit. He didn’t do it as much anymore, because he so rarely felt this swell of contentment in his chest, but now he felt it rising up his throat.

Beside him, Mickey threw his head back and laughed at his own joke, something about Polish weddings, and just like that, Ian was counting his luck, ticking it off mentally on his fingers.

He looked at this boy at his side, who’d decided out of the blue he must really like strays and seemed intent on feeding Ian as much as he possibly could. He thought of Svetlana, his prickly, loyal, aggressively protective guardian who had let Ian slip into her apartment after midnight last night without a word, only a glare and a jerk of her chin to indicate the square of free floor in the corner that wasn’t already occupied by snoring, sleeping Russian woman. He thought of Lip, even if it felt more and more like Lip’s concern for Ian stemmed from a sense of obligation than anything else. He thought of Fiona, even though he hadn’t heard from her in weeks.

He wondered if the girl in the alleyway had anyone, or if she was alone. He figured everyone must have someone. He tried to decide if it would make it better or worse, if there were people worrying about her, or if there was no one there to notice she was gone.

Beyond that, Ian reflected on his genetic luck, that he was young and healthy, and strong. It was the last part that made him still. Objectively, he knew he was lucky to be a hooker who was bigger than most of his tricks. He’d had some rough clients in the past, but as of yet, no one who he couldn’t fight off if he needed to. Sometimes he looked at Svetlana before she left to meet a client, at her skinny arms, her collarbone and shoulders sticking sharply out of her dress, or he’d watch some of the other working girls or the guys he knew who were smaller than him, twinky and adorable, getting ready to go out, meeting up with strangers, and find himself overwhelmed by their vulnerability.

The girl in the alleyway had been tiny like that. Even though he felt squeamish, he made himself think of her thin, delicate wrists, ending in nothing, just because it felt shitty to try and forget about it.

It made him furious, the more he thought of it. The thought of someone hurting someone smaller than they were, someone objectively weaker. He didn’t realize he was standing frozen, hand gripping the handle of the goulash pot so hard his knuckles were white, until Mickey poked at him lightly in the side, the touch quick and hesitant.

“Yo Gallagher, come on back,” Mickey said. Ian blinked, releasing the pot that Mickey was trying to take out of his hands. “I think this guy’s clean, trust me.”

Ian watched Mickey wipe the pot dry, glancing back at Ian over and over, his eyes concerned. It made Ian feel wobbly. He had no idea what he had done to merit that concern.

“I’m going to try and figure out who’s doing this,” he said firmly. As soon as Mickey opened his mouth to protest, Ian cut him off, his frustration boiling over. “I’m not going to just fucking sit back and pretend like nothing happened. Something happened. A girl died. It doesn’t matter that she wasn’t the right kind of girl. You can’t just kill people. You can’t.”

He trailed off, chest heaving at the force of his own indignation. He knew he was being naïve, Svetlana for one would never let him hear the end of it if she got an earful of his idealistic fervor for justice, but even though he knew he shouldn’t expect things to be fair, he couldn’t help but find himself wishing for it, because goddamnit, just because shit being fair didn't happen often didn’t mean that it shouldn’t happen ever.

He steeled himself for Mickey to scoff or call him dumb, sticking his chin out defiantly.

“Jesus, put the chin away,” Mickey said after a minute. “Where are you thinking about starting on this one, tough guy?”

It was the last thing he expected Mickey to say. He just looked at Mickey for a second, at the expectant expression on his face, and let himself mentally roll around in the comfortable feeling that Mickey trusted him, at least a little. And maybe that surprise at Mickey's trust was to blame for the stupid fucking thing Ian did next.

He leaned down, just by a hair so their faces were level, and pressed his lips to Mickey’s.

 

****

 

For just the scantest of seconds, Mickey let himself press into the kiss, into Ian’s impossibly soft, warm mouth.

Then he was yanking himself back and away, gasping, his heart pounding.

Ian looked at him, distant horror washing from the top of his face to the bottom like a wave. He held his hands stiffly at his side, taking two shaky steps back.

“I don’t know why I….I just assumed, I shouldn’t have….I mean, I thought….” Ian shut his mouth and opened it again. It was almost painful to watch Ian stumble so obviously over his words.

Mickey wanted to reassure him, to explain somehow, but the words were stuck in his throat and his breath was shallow. He hadn’t had a panic attack in months. He wasn’t going to have one right now, goddamn it, and he clenched his teeth together, fighting the sensation.

In front of him, Ian was rubbing both hands over his face. “Fuck,” he muttered. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and checked the time, then swore again. “I have to go, I’m going to be late.” He looked at Mickey again, and his face, stricken and flushed and so, so guilty, made Mickey struggle again to unlock his jaw, but it was useless.

“I’m sorry, Mickey,” Ian said. He spun around and was out the door.

But he didn’t grab his bag on the way out, Mickey noted with relief, so he must be planning to come back to the apartment that night.

As soon as he was gone, Mickey reached out and punched the tile on the wall beside the oven. His knuckles split and he yanked his hand back, the pain from the burn and the bruised knuckles making his whole arm throb. “God fucking damnit!” he screamed, beyond irritated that now that Ian was gone, his voice had returned and his throat loosened up enough for him to speak. Nice timing on that one, Reflexes, his thought angrily.

He threw himself on the couch, pulling his hair until the dull pain in his scalp made his heart feel less like it was trying to pound its way out of his chest and make a break for it. And then he was laughing weakly, the sound pitiful and embarrassing.

His first kiss. His first fucking kiss, from Ian of all people, and he’d fucking sabotaged the whole thing like a psychopath. Classic Milkovich. If High School Mickey could see him now, he’d probably punch himself right in the dick.

He was hit by the strangest urge to call Mandy, just so she could tell him what a goddamn idiot loser he was. It would be a relief to hear it confirmed from someone else’s mouth.

But before he had the chance to even consider it, his phone rang, making Mickey jerk so hard he fell off the couch and onto his knees. He fumbled for the phone like a hopeless white person in a late-night infomercial, struggling to flip it open. He didn’t bother to look at the caller ID, hoping like an asshole it was Ian.

He tried not to pant into the phone too much. “Hello?”

“Taking the night off tonight?” Ronnie’s voice came through the receiver, his quiet disappointment making Mickey’s ears ring.

“Fuck. Shit,” Mickey said, pulling the phone away to check the time. He was way running late. “I’m on my way.”

Ronnie hung up without another word. Mickey knew he was in deep shit. He ran out of the apartment and jogged the full five blocks to the drop point he’d discussed with Ronnie earlier that day. His uncle was waiting for him under a streetlight, checking his watch. When he saw Mickey, he raised his eyebrows slightly. It was a micro-expression, but from Ronnie, it was like a punch to the face.

“Glad you decided to join us,” Ronnie said. His voice was withering. “I hope we didn’t cramp what I can only assume were your very busy plans for the evening.”

Mickey came to stop beside him, putting his hands on his knees to catch his breath. “I’m sorry—I just lost track of time—” he coughed, trying to control his gasps for air. Fuck, those fucking cigarettes from earlier were betraying him.

Ronnie was watching him oddly. “You okay, kid?” He sounded less Monumentally Disappointed and more Concerned For Mickey’s Welfare, which was almost worse.

“I’m fine,” Mickey said. He straightened up. “Where’s Colin and the guys? They on their way?”

“I sent them on ahead, figured they could get the shit and meet us back here while I waited for you.” Ronnie was still looking at him, face blank, but it made Mickey twitch under the scrutiny anyway.

“Fuck. I’m sorry. I fucked up,” Mickey said. He knew his uncle was depending on him tonight. Ronnie didn’t like making drug deals, he was too old school for his own good sometimes, and if there was one thing Mickey was good at, it was buying and dealing coke. It was like his one marketable goddamn skill, and here he was, not even able to come through with even that.

Man, he was just fucking up all over the place tonight, an image of Ian’s wrecked face rising unbidden in his mind.

“It’s okay, Mick,” Ronnie said. Mickey raised an eyebrow suspiciously. Usually, Ronnie loved a good guilt trip. “It happens. Just keep a better eye on the clock next time.”

It was such a weird thing for his uncle to say that Mickey actually took a cautious step back. Was he about to get offed? Was this some kind of false sense of security he was being lulled into? Was this how it ended? If he didn’t know for sure he was Ronnie’s favorite nephew, he would have been chilled to the bone by his uncle’s forgiveness.

Even so, it was unnerving. “Okay, who are you and what have done with my Uncle Ronnie?” Mickey asked. “Because I should warn you, I don’t have a lot of money, but what I do have is a very specific set of skills.”

Ronnie quirked his mouth a little, which for him was equivalent to a guffaw. “Colin said you seemed off earlier.”

“Colin’s a goddamn busybody who should mind his own goddamn business,” Mickey said.

“Well, you’ve seemed a little out of sorts all week.” Ronnie cleared his throat. He reached out and let his heavy, calloused hand fall onto Mickey’s shoulder. Mickey looked at it uneasily, then back up at Ronnie. “If you need to…talk. About anything, I can. We can….do that.”

Mickey hadn’t felt this uncomfortable in a long time. He could tell Ronnie didn’t feel much better. It went against every Eastern European bone in both of their bodies to have a sharing is caring moment, and Mickey winced, embarrassed that his own weirdness had been so obvious that he’d had driven them to this lowly state.

“I’m fine, Ronnie,” Mickey said. He widened his eyes in what he felt was a convincing manner. Ronnie didn’t seem too convinced. “Seriously. No big deal.”

And that was all he could say, really. Because the truth was, Mickey was fucked up. He was fucking fucked up, and broken, and even something as simple as a chaste kiss from someone he’d been jacking it to for years was enough to send him flying off the handle. How could he explain that to his uncle? How could he explain that to anyone?

Maybe this was just something he would have to live with for the rest of his life. It was a grim thought.

At that moment, Mickey spotted Colin’s shitty Oldsmobile coming around the corner. He’d never been happier to see that POS in his life.

“Showtime,” Mickey said. Ronnie nodded, and they moved in sync to meet the car in the alleyway around the corner to unload.

 

****

 

Ian was off his game tonight.

Thinking back on Mickey, his face after Ian pressed his mouth against his, the look of startled fear, made Ian’s stomach feel sour. He felt like a predator. He felt like a pushy, bullying trick, forcing his affection on someone who clearly didn’t want anything like that from Ian.

It was just something about Mickey, being near Mickey, that just made him want to put his mouth onto Mickey’s mouth and jesus, he needed to chill.

Wrapping his arms around his bare shoulders for warmth, Ian began the long walk back to Mickey’s apartment from the hotel where he’d gotten off work.

The trick had been cranky. This guy was usually pretty kvetch-y in general, and he was worse when Ian wasn’t on time. Sure, Ian only ended up being ten minutes late, but it was his own fault, he knew how the guy got when he had to wait.

It made Ian feel unprofessional, even, which was bizarre and made him question whether he was seriously starting to consider sex work a career. He wasn’t necessarily opposed to it, it wasn't the worst job in the world, but he was also seventeen and thought maybe he shouldn’t be putting all his eggs into the job basket he stumbled upon as a teenager.

Regardless, the trick had been a little rough in retribution during their session tonight. It wasn’t completely unpleasant, Ian didn’t mind some rough stuff every once and a while, but he was more sore than he usually was after this guy. He just wanted to get home and shower.

It didn’t escape him that he was calling Mickey’s apartment “home” in his head. He tried not to read too much into it. It was where he’d left all his shit, so it was at least partially accurate. That had been a conscious decision on his part, because the thought of dragging his bag and fleeing into the night, with no excuse to ever return and let Mickey cook him dinner again, had filled him with even more panic than he'd seen on Mickey’s face after Ian had landed that dumb kiss on him.

He needed to give Mickey a call to buzz him up anyway, so it didn’t really matter if he blurted out an apology in the same breath too. He just hoped he was still welcome there.

He felt jittery the closer he got to the apartment, the low-level paranoia of being watched beginning to feel uncomfortably familiar, even though he was mostly walking alone. It was after midnight and this neighborhood was mostly residential, and although he could hear people at the bars a few blocks over, Friday night parties going strong, he didn’t pass many people as he finally reached Mickey's place.

There was a cardboard box on the front steps to Mickey’s apartment. As Ian stepped past it, he wondered why the mail guy hadn’t just stuck it in the vestibule under the mailboxes with the other deliveries. He leaned against the door frame, dialing Mickey's number and waiting as it rang in his ear. He didn’t know what time Mickey was supposed to be back from his mysterious run with Ronnie, but he wanted to get his groveling out the way. Ian crossed his feet at the ankles, trying not to freak out. At least his bag and all its contents weren't strewn across the lawn. That was a good sign.

Mickey picked up on the eleventh ring, right as Ian was about to hang up, and man he really needed to help Mickey set up a voicemail box, because this was ridiculous. “Ian?” He sounded fuzzy, like Ian’s call had woken him up.

“I’m sorry,” Ian blurted out.

Mickey made a noise. He sounded like he was struggling to come awake. “Where are you?”

“Outside your apartment.” Now that he had Mickey on the line, Ian couldn’t stop himself from babbling, the words an unstoppable flow. “I’m just really, really sorry, Mick. I was out of line earlier. Jesus, I feel like an asshole—”

“Ian, calm down,” Mickey interrupted. He sighed. “Just come inside. I’ll buzz you up.”

Ian bit his lip. “Okay.”

“Hold on,” Mickey said. There were rustling noises as Mickey presumably got out of bed and shuffled to the door, keeping the phone at his ear.

The relief Ian felt at hearing nothing but resigned sleepiness in Mickey’s voice was indescribable. He didn’t sound angry or standoffish, like Ian had expected. it almost felt like a release, making him slightly lightheaded.

The door buzzed and Ian jerked a little, clumsily unhooking one ankle from the other as he moved to open the door before it locked again. He lurched sideways a little, the toe of his sneaker catching the cardboard box beside him. It wasn’t taped shut, Ian noticed, the flaps on top jostling slackly when Ian’s shoe connected with it.

“Shit,” Ian muttered, pulling the door open. The buzzing stopped, Ian propping the door open with his hip.

“What’s up?” Mickey said sleepily through the phone that was still pressed to Ian’s face.

“Nothing, just almost kicked a box off your porch.”

Ian glanced down, thinking that he should bring the box inside so whatever poor asshole it belonged to wasn’t completely shit out of luck.

He knelt to grab it by one of the open flaps, which left the box hanging open. The yellow gleam from the light inside the vestibule caught at just the right angle, illuminating the contents of the box enough that Ian could see inside.

A pair of small, delicate hands sat side by side at the bottom of the box. The well-trimmed nails were painted a bright electric blue. The empty base of the hands were shiny and red, the skin slightly wrinkled where it had been severed at the wrist. Ian felt his eyes go wider and wider as he stared.

“Oh my god,” Ian said softly. “Oh my god, oh my god.”

“Ian?” Mickey’s voice was sharper. “What’s wrong, man?”

Ian couldn’t reply, his throat going dry. He heard Mickey saying something on the other end, the sound of a door slamming, the vague sounds of Mickey coming down the stairs, but Ian had brought the phone away from his face by that point.

He was still holding the box reflexively. His hand finally began to go slack and the box slid out of his fingers. It hit the porch again with a thump, the hands inside making a dull sound as they jostled at the impact.

On instinct, Ian wheeled around, scanning the street around him. There was no one there. He was the only person on the street. It was just him, and the box of hands beside him.

Chapter Text

When Mickey registered the sudden shock in Ian’s voice over the phone, the soft way he repeated “oh my god” over and over, his whole body went cold. He leapt out of bed, throwing open his apartment door so hard it smacked loudly against the wall, not stopping to get shoes on, taking the stairs down two at a time.

He saw Ian’s tall shape on the porch through the frosted glass of the vestibule and nearly knocked the other boy over when he came barreling out onto the porch.

“Ian, fuck, what happened?” Mickey demanded. He shoved his phone in a pocket and grabbed Ian with both hands, gripping his forearms just below the elbows.

Ian was so pale he looked grey. He was swaying a little, leaning into Mickeys grip. His eyes were glassy but he blinked and glanced down.

“The…the,” Ian said weakly, swallowing. He gestured with one hand, the movement aborted slightly under Mickey’s tight grip.

Mickey looked down impatiently, spotting a medium-sized cardboard box at their feet. It wasn’t taped shut, but he didn’t spare it much thought. He and Ian’s shadows fell on it anyway, making it difficult to note any obvious details, and Mickey was too preoccupied with Ian’s choppy breathing.

“Hey, look at me,” Mickey said, moving closer so his face was closer to Ian’s. “It’s cool, dude. You’re okay.”

Ian shook his head. “Mick. The box.”

“What about the damn box?” Mickey asked, exasperated, but he looked down at it again. Keeping his grip on Ian, he knocked it with the side of shoe so it wobbled and the light from the vestibule glanced off it.

When he got a glimpse of what was inside, he jerked back. “Holy shit!” he yelped. He let go of Ian and knelt down, using a knuckle to press a flap back.

Two small, white hands, fingers curled into the palm almost gracefully, looked up at him from the bottom of the box.

Mickey didn’t consider himself normally squeamish, but apparently that shit was unpredictable, because at that moment all the bile in his stomach began to rise up.

“Shit, I’m—” he got out, before spinning around to bend over at the waist over the side of the porch, hands on his knees as he retched.

He dry heaved once, twice, never actually throwing anything up. His throat and eyes burned. Holy fuck. There was a box of hands on his doorstep. Good god.

Ian seemed to snap to attention, acting as a firm presence beside him, pressing a hip against Mickey’s side and supporting most of Mickey’s weight as he sagged. Ian placed a hand lightly on Mickey’s lower back, rubbing little circles there.

“Hey, it’s okay man, just give it a second,” he said. He voice sounded stronger, although still quiet, as he waited for Mickey to pull himself together.

After a minute the impulse to heave settled, although Mickey stayed hunched over for a bit longer to be sure.

“Mick, someone must've come and left that tonight,” Ian said urgently. He was still rubbing circles on Mickey’s back, but he sounded panicked.

Mickey straightened and turned. Ian was looking at him with wide eyes. Mickey reached out and wrapped a hand around Ian’s bicep, ostensibly to calm him down, but also because touching Ian was the only thing grounding him at the moment. After a few interminable minutes, Ian seemed calmer and Mickey felt like he could breath again as the abject panic began to recede in Ian’s eyes.

Which left them both slack-jawed at what they should do about the fucking box of hands at their feet.

They hesitated, looking down at the box then back up at each other in near-perfect synchronization. Obviously, they needed to call someone. Obviously.

“It just feels weird, calling the cops,” Mickey said after a pause. He rubbed one hand over his hair. “I mean, I’m usually on the side of crime.”

“Tell me about it. I mean,” Ian said, gesturing at his own chest, his hand a little shaky, “hooker.”

There was another long moment as they looked down at the box again, like they were waiting for it to weigh in on the situation. Finally, Mickey cracked.

“Fuck it.” He pulled his phone out and flipped it open. “Guess we’re calling the fuzz.”

He figured he’d call 911 now, and then his Uncle Ronnie after that. It made him feel like a little kid, but the impulse to Call An Adult You Trust was overwhelming.

Mickey used his phone, and the 911 operator on the other end sounded just as disinterested as last time, even when he mentioned “box with two hands in it,” which was impressive. He again declined to leave a name or number, more out of habit than anything, because the cops would be coming to his fucking apartment anyway.

It was past midnight on a Friday, so Ian and Mickey had to wait a while. They sat as far from the box as they could without physically falling off the concrete porch. That also meant that they were pressed together, shoulder to hip, but Mickey found he didn’t mind too much. He still felt a little queasy, and touching Ian anchored him somewhat.

Finally, a police cruiser pulled up with its flashers on. A sedan pulled up behind it, plain-clothes officers, Mickey supposed, and watched as both cars emptied themselves of cops. They made their way toward the two boys, already loud and chattering to each other.

“You two call 911?” one of the plain-clothes officers asked. Mickey nodded, on edge. It was weird being on this side of a police call.

Mickey and Ian stood, and Ian made a sound of deep annoyance. Mickey glanced at him, then followed his eyes. He swore under his breath.

“Oh come on, seriously?” Ian said, his voice going up high. “There was no one else on duty tonight? Why is it always you?”

O’Reilly and Nowak stepped forward from behind the plain-clothes officers. Nowak was sweating, his pale forehead glistening even in the cool fall air. O'Reilly looked his customary irritated.

“For real, how big is their beat, though,” Mickey muttered under his breath to Ian.

O’Reilly folded his arms across his chest, eyeing Ian curiously. “I could ask you the same fucking question, you know. I been seeing just a little too much of you these days.” He approached the porch. “So what do we have here, some kind of domestic disturbance?”

Ian went still, staring straight ahead in what Mickey was beginning to recognize as a defensive stance. Mickey arched an eyebrow at O’Reilly.

“Swing and a miss,” he told the cop. He nodded at the box across the porch. “Not that I don’t have total faith in your detective work, but you might want to start with that box some lunatic left on my porch.”

Nowak and one of the other cops pulled on rubber gloves and bent to examine the box. “Shit,” Nowak said softly when he saw the hands.

O’Reilly seemed startled by the discovery, but he quickly caught himself, taking a step closer to Ian, intentionally crowding him. Mickey made himself be still. Ian was okay so far, no point taking a swing until he had to.

“Into the rough stuff these days, huh?” O’Reilly said softly to Ian. "That's pretty kinky."

And that was all it took. Mickey’s vision went red. He stepped in between Ian and the asshole cop, wedging himself so his chest was almost pressed against O’Reilly’s shoulder. “Why don’t you back the hell off my friend here?” Mickey hissed.

But O’Reilly mostly ignored him, keeping his eyes on Ian, smiling a little like he was waiting for a reaction. “Got yourself a nice little guard dog here, don’t you?” O’Reilly said.

“Jesus what is your problem—” Mickey began, but his words were cut off as another police cruiser pulled up.

This one effectively blocked the entire street. Mickey’s neighbors were going to be pissed. He was also less than thrilled, because the last thing they needed was another fucking cop in the mix, jesus.

Two women cops got out of the cruiser, one black and the other white. The white woman stayed by the car, speaking into the handheld radio, and the black lady, her hair pulled back tight in a low pony tail that looked like it hurt her scalp, marched directly over to the porch without sparing any of the other cops a glance.

O’Reilly’s back was to her as he glared down at Ian. It was his partner Nowak that noticed her approach, reaching over to poke O’Reilly urgently. With one last glare, O’Reilly spun around. He smiled brightly at the cop as she walked up. “How’s it going, Johnson? I didn’t know you were on tonight.”

“Shift change,” she said shortly. She turned her eyes on Ian and Mickey. “You two the ones who called in the disturbance?”

Ian was still staring straight ahead, stiff as long as O’Reilly was in the vicinity. Mickey nudged Ian back with his hip before he nodded at woman cop.

“Yeah, I called it in. I live upstairs,” he said. He looked at Ian, then decided what the hell. “Me and him are roommates.”

She waited until O’Reilly stepped aside, giving him a look and waiting until he joined the other cops nearer to the box, all engaging in indistinguishable nonsense tasks, as far as Mickey could tell. When she was standing at a relative remove with Ian and Mickey, she took both of their names, pausing as she wrote down Ian’s. She looked at him a minute. “You related to Fiona Gallagher?”

Ian nodded. Mickey was coming to think Ian had some kind of connection to damn near every cop in the city.

“I’m Detective Johnson,” the lady said. When Ian didn’t seem to recognize her, she elaborated. “I was your sister’s PO. I was on break from homicide then, but I transferred back this year. How’s she doing?”

Mickey didn’t remember hearing anything about Fiona being embraced by the long arm of the law, but then, he lost track of Ian and his entire family when they left the neighborhood. Looked like Fiona had taken a turn in the metal motel herself.

Ian was shrugging at Johnson’s question. “She’s okay, I guess. She’s in Michigan now, with my little sister.”

“She was able to get custody?”

Ian shrugged again. He reminded Mickey of a puppet, limbs jerking up and down compulsively. “Something like that.”

Johnson raised her eyebrows, then looked down at her pad of paper again. “Okay. Well, why don’t you walk me through what happened here? We might need you two to come in for questioning in the future, but if we’re lucky, we can get your statements now and that’s all we’ll need from you tonight.”

Ian told the story woodenly, describing walking home, calling Mickey to let him up, seeing the box, accidentally hitting it with a foot and then, when he picked it up to bring inside the vestibule, seeing the hands inside.

While Ian talked, Mickey sent his uncle a text: shit hit the fan, you busy?

He didn’t expect Ronnie would be up, but he responded a few minutes later with a response: Be over in 20.

Johnson interrupted Ian’s periodically, asking questions briskly, but she didn’t make Mickey’s blood boil the way most cops did, and Ian even seemed a little more relaxed the more he talked to her. She finished by writing down their phone numbers.

Finally satisfied, she put the notepad back in her pocket. “Well, that’s all I got for now. You boys can go inside, if you want. Tell your sister I said hello,” she told Ian.

O’Reilly noticed Ian and Mickey retreating into the vestibule. “Hey, aren’t we taking these guys in?” he asked Johnson. “They were at the scene.”

Johnson raised both eyebrows again. “I have enough of a statement from them now, I think,” she said. O’Reilly looked like he wanted to argue, but Johnson clearly outranked him. She nodded at Ian and Mickey, then handed Ian a card. “Give me a call if you think of anything else. And have a good night, I guess, if that's even possible after all this. We’ll be in touch.”

As they went inside, Mickey stepped behind Johnson’s back and scratched his nose, somewhat-subtly giving O’Reilly the finger. The fucking asshole saw the gesture, but he only smirked. “See you around, Milkovich,” he said. Mickey just rolled his eyes.

He felt shaky as he followed Ian upstairs. His apartment door was still wide open from when he rushed out. Ian shut the door when Mickey was inside, then he gave Mickey a shove.

“What the hell, Gallagher?”

“What the hell, Milkovich? You can’t fucking bait that guy like that, flicking him off, come on, are you fucking insane?”

Mickey scowled. “That asshole isn’t going to do shit. Fucking pussy’s got no game when he’s not by himself bullying teenagers,” Mickey said.

Ian looked ready to argue, but there was a knock at the apartment door. Mickey stepped around Ian to open it, revealing his uncle, looking bemused.

“You aware there’s an open crime scene on your front step? Makes it pretty goddamn difficult to get in the building, let me tell you,” Ronnie said. He noticed Ian. “Who the hell are you?”

“This is Ian, he’s from the neighborhood,” Mickey said.

Ian cut in, because of course he did. “I’m just crashing for the night,” he said.

Mickey gave him a sharp look. “Dude, check out isn’t at eleven, I’m not kicking you out or some shit.”

“I’m not a bum, I can find my own place to live,” Ian said tersely.

Mickey wasn’t sure how they were back here again, but somehow they'd regressed and it was pissing him off.

“Come the fuck on, Ian,” he said, ready to get into it, but there was a meaningful cough from behind him.

Ronnie was watching the argument intently from where he had gone to stand in the kitchen. It took Mickey a second to remember that Ronnie was even there, that he could hear every word Mickey and Ian were flinging at one another, so caught up was he in how fucking angry Ian could make him sometimes.

Mickey pressed his lips into a thin line. Ian also seemed surprised to remember they weren’t alone. It was a little gratifying for Mickey to know he wasn’t the only one wrapped up in their weird little world.

“Ronnie,” Mickey began, but his uncle held up one hand to silence him.

Taking his time, Ronnie pulled a stool from the kitchen counter and brought it nearer to the couch. He settled himself on the stool, taking time to arrange one long leg over the other and lace his hands together where they rested lightly on his knee. He looked at his nephew, then at Ian, his expression blank.

“I think maybe you boys should fill me in on what’s been going on,” he said. His voice was bland, but Mickey could tell he was trying to convey that he patently did not have time for this shit.

Mickey heaved a sigh and sat on the couch facing Ronnie. Ian hesitated near the door, and Mickey rolled his eyes. “Sit your scrawny ass down, man. Resistance is fucking futile at this point, trust me.”

Ian threw himself next to Mickey, piercing him with a look. “So dramatic,” Mickey muttered under his breath. Ian elbowed him in the ribs, then focused on Ronnie, who appeared to be waiting.

Ian exhaled loudly, then seemed to decide fuck it and dove in. “I found a dead body earlier this week over near Ashland and Pulaski—”

Mickey cut in. “And the girl, the body, she didn’t have any hands, someone must’ve cut them off or something, it was fucked up.”

Ian barely paused at the interruption. “—and I kind of panicked and called Mickey, and then he met me out and called the cops—”

That made Mickey rush to reassure his uncle. “I didn’t call the cops exactly, I called 911, and I used the burner so they couldn’t trace it.”

“—but the thing was, I couldn’t figure out anything about who the girl was, and the cops wouldn’t give me any information—”

“Which isn’t too surprising, because cops are assholes and it’s none of your goddamn business anyway,” Mickey said, smirking a little when he saw Ian exhale slowly through his nose, deliberately ignoring Mickey’s commentary.

“—and even though there’s no way to know for sure, I think the hands on the porch—”

“I’d bet a million fucking dollars and my right arm that they used to belong to that dead girl Ian found,” Mickey added with a flourish.

Ian finally twisted on the couch to face him, the picture of irritation. “You want to tell the story, go right ahead, you dick,” he said. “And besides, the hands still belong to her, I mean, they just aren’t attached to her anymore.”

“Don’t be a pedant, dude,” Mickey shot back.

Ian raised an eyebrow. “Well, look at you and all your fancy-ass words.”

Which made Mickey throw his hands in air. “I know things, dude. I don’t know why everyone’s always so surprised when I know things.”

“God, you whiner,” Ian said, turning dismissively back to face Ronnie, who was watching them bicker with what Mickey was coming to suspect was amusement. “But now that fucking cop from outside, O’Reilly, he’s going to be riding my ass more than usual if he thinks I’m involved or some shit. When really I just want to figure out what the hell is going on.”

Mickey gave him a hard one-handed shove. “Are you serious right now? You get a pair of hands delivered to your doorstep and you’re first instinct is, ‘Man, I should get myself more directly involved in this situation'? That’s some Darwinian shit right there.”

Ian didn’t spare him a glance, but his lips were pursed. “You need to lay off the Jeopardy, Mick.”

“And you need to stop going out of your way to put yourself in danger,” Mickey retorted. Ian immediately opened his mouth to argue.

“Okay,” Ronnie cut in. Both boys went silent, watching Mickey's uncle close his eyes for a second to collect himself. Then he fixed Mickey and Ian with his steely gaze. He held up one finger. “So, in summation: there’s been at least one murder.” He held up another finger. “Both of you are involved to the extent that someone thought it was worth their while to send you a message.” He held up a third finger. “At least one cop may or may not consider one or both of you persons of interest at this point.”

Mickey considered, then nodded. “Yep, that about sums it up.”

Ronnie turned to Ian, and held up a fourth finger. “That mick cop out there knew you, and I assume how he knew you has something to do with how you stumbled upon that body in the first place.”

Ian bit his lip, then seemed to catch himself and his face went smooth. He didn’t say anything to Ronnie, staring straight ahead. It reminded Mickey of how he’d looked outside earlier with O’Reilly, going perfectly and stoically still.

Mickey felt himself adjusting, leaning forward, his body canting slightly so his knee was pressed lightly to Ian’s. He couldn’t read Ronnie’s expression, mostly because he didn’t have an expression, like always, but it made Mickey’s hackles go up. It felt like his uncle was passing some kind of judgment on Ian, on who he thought Ian was, and Mickey wasn’t about it.

“Anything else you need from us tonight?” Mickey asked Ronnie. “Because I wanted to fill you in, but I’m fucking beat to shit and want to go to bed, if that’s cool with you.”

Ronnie was clearly unimpressed by the attitude, but he shrugged equitably.

“That's all I need, I suppose. But I was just going to say, it looks like you might have an admirer out there somewhere,” Ronnie said to Ian.

Ian startled at that. Mickey felt shaken too, because while he’d briefly entertained the notion for a second on the front step, he’d never let himself think the words fully formed. It was too fucked up to contemplate. That someone might be trying to get Ian’s attention, somehow.

“Or the box could’ve been for me,” Mickey cut in stubbornly. He hated the wrecked look on Ian’s face. He looked ashamed. “Maybe it’s something from those guys me and Colin fucked up earlier in Skokie. Maybe it’s some gang thing. Who knows.”

Ronnie hauled himself up from the stool, shaking his head. He spared both boys a tired look. “Either way. I want you knuckleheads to lay low while I talk to some people, see if there’s anything I can scare up.”

Mickey nodded. This was why he’d called his uncle primarily, to see if he could talk to some contacts about any word on the street.

Ronnie waited for Ian to acknowledge him as well, and finally the redhead shrugged uncomfortably. “Not like I have much of a choice, is there?”

Mickey’s uncle looked up at the ceiling as he muttered something that sounded like, “God spare me from teenagers,” before letting himself out of the apartment.

The room felt deafening in its silence as Mickey and Ian sat beside each other. Ronnie was a busybody and Mickey didn’t like the way he’d talked to Ian, but he was a comforting presence. Now it was all Mickey could do not to get up and go lock and re-lock his doors, then walk around securing all the windows.

There was no way around it. He was officially spooked, even though his apartment faced the street and he could still see the flashers from the cop cars outside.

“I really am sorry,” Ian said into the silence.

Mickey tried and failed to think of something, anything, that Ian might be talking about, but he eventually gave up. “What the hell are you sorry for?”

He watched Ian pick at the threads on the couch, the gesture broadcasting such obvious discomfort that Mickey was practically picking up a contact blush. “For earlier. When I.” Ian coughed. “The kiss. I shouldn’t have kissed you.”

Now Mickey was definitely blushing. He briefly fantasized about a parallel universe where Ian didn’t insist on talking through his feelings on everything when there were actual, real problems to be dealt with. He wished they were in that universe, because Ian was now forcing himself to look Mickey in the eye.

“It’s a fucked-up thing to do, to assume someone else is gay just because I am. I mean, I get pissed when people assume I’m straight, so it probably pissed you off that I assumed the opposite,” Ian said steadily.

When Mickey didn’t answer, most because he was only able to stare in shocked silence, Ian seemed to take that as the green light to continue spewing words into the abyss. “I just, this is so embarrassing, but I kind of had a…huge crush on you in high school?” A bright blush crept over Ian’s face, and Mickey was sure they must make a hilarious picture right now, two teenaged boys staring at each other and blushing so hard they looked like they were hemorrhaging.

Ian sat forward so his elbows were on his knee, holding his head in both of his hands even as he kept looking helplessly at Mickey. “Shit, I can’t believe I just told you that. Fuck. Just, I assumed stuff back then, about there being like, the tiniest chance that you’d be into it too, and that was pretty dumb. For me to like, carry a torch for you all this time and then to come on to you, when you’re letting me crash here, it’s just whenever I’m near you I just kind of want to touch you, and holy shit that sounds creepy as hell, I’m really, really sorry—”

“Good god, stop. Just, stop,” Mickey interjected, unable to take it anymore, covering his eyes with both hands. He felt like he might lose it if he had to listen to Ian chatter for another second.

Ian went obediently quiet. Mickey took his hands from his eyes to see that Ian was watching him alertly, his whole body tense. Mickey couldn’t help but shake his head at him, a little wonderingly. Because what was that like, just blurting out what you fucking felt every second? How had Ian’s ancestors evolved without any kind of self-protective instincts?

Mickey was at a total loss on how to respond. He was surprised to feel a tiny smile struggling to emerge on his face, and even though he tried to bury it, his lips quirked anyway. “Shit, dude. Anything else you want to add? Got any thoughts on current events?”

With acute relief, he watched Ian’s face relax, saw him grin weakly.

“Because we’re not actually on an airplane that’s going down in a cartwheeling ball of flame, there’s no real need to confess every innermost secret you’ve ever had,” Mickey added.

Ian sat back against the couch cushions, letting out a loud, embarrassed groan. “Oh my god, just kill me now. It’s the only humane thing to do.” His entire body went lax, like he was indeed waiting for the sweet release of death to take him. Or like he was waiting, somewhat pitifully, for Mickey to mock him into oblivion.

“Shit, you just caught me off guard earlier,” Mickey offered quietly.

Because Ian might be an overly talkative idiot, but Mickey was the moron who couldn’t stand to see that overly talkative idiot in pain, even if it was the metaphorical pain of social mortification.

Ian sat up suddenly, looking so much like a puppy that Mickey couldn’t help but laugh. He stopped laughing when Ian spoke.

“So, you…are into dudes?” Ian asked hopefully.

And that right there was why talking was so fucking stupid, because all Mickey wanted was for Ian to look less like he was going to jump off a building, not get into a heart-to-heart about Mickey’s fucked-up sexuality.

“It doesn’t matter if I am or not,” Mickey said, getting up from the couch and going into the bedroom. There was an extra sheet and quilt for Ian in there somewhere, if he could find it, to go with the pillow Ian already had in his backpack.

Of course Ian followed him, the pushy motherfucker. He seemed to be mulling over Mickey’s words. Finally he cocked his head, squinting a little in thought. “What does that mean, it doesn’t matter?”

Mickey threw his closet open so he wouldn’t have to look at Ian. “There’s no hidden metaphor here, Gallagher, it means what it means.”

“That’s evasive as shit, isn’t it?” Ian insisted, coming around to watch Mickey rifle through his closet.

“Maybe it is, but it still doesn’t mean it matters if I’m into fucking dudes or fucking chicks, man, so drop it,” Mickey said. He found the pillow and sheet at the top of the closet, forced to go on his tiptoes to reach while ignoring Ian’s smirk, that fucking giant lanky asshole.

Ian turned to watch Mickey walk back to the door. “Is that, like, a philosophical belief or some shit? Why doesn’t it matter who you fuck?”

“Because it doesn’t matter,” Mickey said stubbornly. Ian was looking just as stubborn though, and it made Mickey nervous.

“But why?”

“What are you, a goddamn child?”

“Just tell me why it doesn’t matter.”

“Drop it, Ian.”

“Why doesn’t it matter who you fuck?”

“Because I haven’t fucked anyone!” Mickey exploded. When he realized what he said, what he’d revealed, he sagged against the doorframe. “Christ.”

“Mick,” Ian said lamely. He looked impossibly guilty. But there was also something in his eyes, something soft, and it made Mickey’s insides feel like they were roiling.

“And wipe that fucking look off your face, it’s none of your fucking business anyway. Christ, why are you always pushing into stuff that has nothing to do with you? Why can’t you just fucking stay out of anything, ever?” Mickey was shouting now, and Ian looked crushed, but if there was a method for instantaneously defusing a rage-filled rant, Mickey had yet to discover it, especially after he’d somehow managed to blurt out he was a fucking 18-year-old virgin, fucking jesus christ.

He threw the blanket and folded sheet at Ian, the linens hitting the other boy in the chest with an unsatisfying lack of force. “Just do what Ronnie said and keep your ass off the streets for a few days, think you can handle that, asshole?”

Without waiting for a response, Mickey let himself stomp back to his room and slam the door behind him, the loud clang doing nothing to drown out the ringing in his ears.

 

****

 

Ian stood outside Mickey's closed door for a while, at a complete loss.

Something about Mickey’s face, his voice, the way he’d admitted he hadn’t screwed anyone before like it was this terrible, life-threatening secret, stuck in Ian’s mind, chasing itself around and around like a cat trying to destroy its own tail. Something about it seemed, if not off, than incomplete. Like there was a piece Ian was missing to the whole thing.

So Mickey was a virgin. It was a shock, but in a way, also anticlimactic. No one knew more than Ian that sex, by itself, wasn’t rife with its own hidden meaning. He didn’t like it when other people melted down over how many people Ian had fucked, like it meant something more than it did. Unbidden, Lip’s frustrated, shocked, judgmental face rose in Ian’s mind for a second before he batted it away.

Conversely, it didn’t intrinsically matter to him that Mickey hadn’t fucked anyone. He did wonder why, though, of course he wondered why.

They grew up in the same neighborhood. Sex was pretty easy to get, if you wanted it, and maybe Ian was biased but he’d always objectively considered Mickey to be hot as all hell. Maybe he was just a good old-fashioned closet case, if he was gay. Maybe he just never got around to it, for the hundreds of reasons you might never get around to doing something you meant to do, fear or nerves, or in Mickey’s case, the overwhelming need the bossy little asshole had to be in control, all the time, Ian reflected wryly.

But his senses were tingling in that Mickey-specific way he was coming to recognize, like a wire pulled so taught between them that when it vibrated on Mickey’s end, Ian could feel it too.

Finally, he left his post in front of Mickey's door and laid down on the couch. His eyes were tight, he couldn’t keep them closed. When he caved and checked his phone, it said it was 4:57 in the morning. He wondered how long he had to lie there before it was acceptable to call it a loss and get up for the day.

In his hand, his phone vibrated. He glanced down, seeing an unfamiliar number, but with a Chicago area code.

It was probably a new trick. He usually waited to give out his number until he had the chance to vet guys online as best he could, but every once in a while old tricks gave out his digits to new guys they knew. Sometimes it was annoying, sometimes it saved Ian time drumming up new business on his own. Right now he felt too wired to feel one way or the other about it.

He considered ignoring the call, but he needed to get some cash together if he was going to give Mickey money at the end of the week for letting him crash. After the argument from earlier, there was no way Ian wasn’t paying his share.

He flipped his phone and put it to his ear, keeping his voice low. “Hello?”

Steady breathing echoed from the other end of the line. It wasn’t heavy, but Ian could hear the slight whistle on each nasal inhale.

He couldn’t help but roll his eyes. He didn’t have time for this. “Yo man, shit or get off the pot here. Tell me what you’re into or let me go to sleep.”

There was the faint sound of one-person applause. Ian squinted, like that would somehow help him identify the sound, and then he was certain. Someone was clapping. Like they’d set the phone down and were clapping their hands near the receiver.

Clapping their hands. Their hands.

It was all Ian could to do to keep from throwing his phone away from him like a live snake. Instead, he kept it pressed to his face even as his hands shook. “I’m not fucking afraid of you,” he said. His voice was high and reedy, and the words were definitely a lie, but it felt good to say them anyway.

On the other end of the line, whoever it was let out a low groan, the sound you might make in the back of your throat as you’re drifting off to sleep, but it sounded almost like a growl in Ian’s ear. Then the line went silent as they hung up.

He snapped his phone shut, his eyes wide as he stared at the ceiling.

A violent shudder tore through his body and he sat up on the couch. His heart was pounding and he was breathing hard, harder than he had earlier when he found the box on the porch. He stared out the window, at the sun just starting to lighten the horizon.

He went to stand in front of Mickey’s closed door indecisively. He even raised his hand to knock, then brought it down. It made him feel weak, but he was afraid to knock, to see Mickey's face again after Ian had forced him to admit something he wasn't ready to.

Instead, he picked up his backpack and sent Svetlana a message, knowing from painful experience that she woke up at the crack of dawn with the sun: u up?

He wasn’t surprised when she responded almost immediately: I am home.

There was a brief moment where Ian hesitated, trying to ignore the flutter of guilt in his stomach. Mickey would have his ass if got up and saw Ian wasn’t there. Even Mickey’s uncle had told him to stay put. But, Svetlana only lived a few blocks away. He could be out and back before Mickey even woke up. He went to leave, then stopped and made himself pull out an old receipt and a pen from his backpack. He wrote a quick note on the back, saying he went to a friend’s, and then after a pause, wrote down Svetlana’s address for good measure. Maybe if Mickey knew how close he was, he wouldn’t freak out if he woke up before Ian got back.

Outside, it was nearly entirely light out. The police cruisers were gone. The porch was empty of the box. There wasn’t any police tape, and Ian didn’t know if that was only something they did in movies for a crime scene. If he didn't have the memory of the hands lying quietly in the box burned into his mind, it would be like nothing had ever happened. The thought made him shiver.

He made it to Svetlana's in record time. She let him in after one gentle knock. “You are okay?” she asked. She looked worried, and Ian hated it. He suddenly didn't want to tell her anything about his fucked up night.

“If I needed a favor, could you help me out?” he asked instead.

She gave him a suspicious look. “If favor was not stupid, I would consider.”

“Could you ask around, see if anyone is missing? If there's been any girls that no one's seen in a while?”

“If this is about girl with no hands, I swear to god I will crack your orange skull on pavement,” she said, even as she cracked the door wider and ushered him inside.

They stepped over the sleeping bodies of Svetlana’s roommates and into the kitchen. She started making tea, her motions angry.

“I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important,” Ian tried. She ignored him, so he tried again. “I know you could figure it out, you know someone who knows someone who knows everyone who works around here. You’re like the fucking mayor of low-rent hookers on the Southwest Side.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere,” she said. She poured boiling water into a mug with a tea bag in it and handed it to Ian. She rolled her eyes, then crossed her arms. “Go on, give me details.”

Ian gave a description of the girl as best he could remember, and the cross streets near where he found her. Svetlana was glaring at him, but she didn’t interrupt.

“I can make no promises,” she said when he was done.

“Have I ever told you how devastatingly gorgeous I find you?”

She gave him the finger, and he snorted. They sipped their tea in silence for a bit.

“But you are okay?” she asked again.

Ian sighed. He didn’t know how to answer that. He didn’t want to tell her about the hands or the weird fucking clapping from the phone call from earlier. She would lose her shit, and for the moment he was enjoying the calm of her apartment. “You know how it is,” he said instead.

There was a pounding at the door that made both Ian and Svetlana jump up from where they sat in the kitchen. Ian’s heart lurched into his throat.

From the living room, a chorus of Russian voices rose up in protest, then there was a commotion. Ian opened his mouth to ask but Svetlana shushed him.

“It could be Immigration,” she hissed. Ian followed her to the living room and watched her step over the women who were shifting in the shadowed room. Svetlana looked through the peephole. “What you want?” she said loudly.

“Gallagher!” Mickey’s angry voice echoed easily through the weak wood of the door.

“Goddamnit,” Ian said. Svetlana looked at him. “I think it’s for me.”

“What the fuck, man?” Mickey shouted when Svetlana opened the door, coming directly toward Ian without a glance at Svetlana or the other women in the apartment. He shoved Ian’s chest with both hands. “Do you have some kind of fucking head injury I should know about? What is the matter with you?”

"Mick, I'm sorry, I just had to talk to Svetlana and I didn't want to wake you," Ian tried, but Mickey gave him another shove.

"Fuck, I wake up and you're fucking gone, with just a fucking note behind? What the hell?" He looked wild-eyed, and if possible, Ian felt even guiltier, seeing his obvious worry.

"Do not touch him," Svetlana said, stepping forward, but then she went still as she saw Mickey's face more clearly in the light streaming in from the hallway.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” Mickey asked.

Ian was about to explain again, apologize for leaving the apartment without giving Mickey the heads up, when he saw that Mickey wasn’t asking him. He was staring at Svetlana, his blue eyes wide. Svetlana looked similarly startled to see Mickey.

“You guys know each other?” Ian asked in confusion.

Svetlana didn’t answer. Mickey snorted, his eyes were still wide as two moons. “You could fucking say that.”

Ian turned to Svetlana. “Lana, what the hell? How do you know Mickey?”

Svetlana frowned, then turned to the four or five women curled up on the living room floor, all awake now, watching the proceedings avidly. She said something in rapid, angry-sounding Russian. There were a few protests, but Svetlana shouted something sharply and the women all got up, grabbing some things and heading out into the hall, apparently to give them some privacy. Ian didn’t blame them. Svetlana seemed especially scary and tense right now.

“I do not know him, not really,” Svetlana hedged. Mickey made a sound of disbelief, but it was shaky. Ian looked at him, saw the way he was sweating and his hands were clenched at his side.

“Really? No recollection?” Mickey said. His jaw clenched so tight Ian could see the tendons sticking out. “You fuck the faggot out of a lot of guys in your line of work?”

Svetlana looked at him stonily. “No,” she said finally. “Just you.”

“Jesus christ, Svetlana!” Ian exclaimed, moving away from her. “What is he talking about? What did you do?” He turned to Mickey, taking a step closer to him, but Mickey shied away, shoving his hands in the pocket of his jeans. His hair was sticking up like he’d rolled out of bed in a hurry, that tiny detail giving him a vulnerable edge.

“It was two years ago,” Svetlana said vaguely. She looked uncomfortable.

“Good point, who even remembers, right?” Mickey spat back. His tone was taunting, but Ian could practically see him vibrating, his motions jerky. He looked at Ian. “I just wanted to make sure you weren’t fucking serial murdered or some shit, but what a fucking idiot, right? You got your real friends right here.”

“Mick—” Ian tried, but Mickey waved a hand dismissively.

“No, it’s cool dude, you hang out with Mother Russia over here. I’ll just fuck off.” He went to move, but Ian darted forward and grabbed his arm. Mickey tried to shake him off, but Ian held firm.

“Mickey, just wait a second.”

“Fuck you!” Mickey shouted. He jerked his arm against Ian’s grip. “I’m not going to hang around while you chill with the bitch my dad called after he beat the shit out of me for letting some dude blow me, that bitch who came over and—” Mickey stopped abruptly, swallowing. He went slightly lax in Ian’s grip, but then he seemed to regain his fire. “Who came over and fucked me into the couch, jesus.”

“Svetlana?” Ian said desperately, looking from her to Mickey in panic and confusion.

“It was not quite like that,” Svetlana said stiffly. “I did not want to.”

“You didn’t put up any fucking fight,” Mickey scoffed. He was shaking in Ian’s grip, going pale like from earlier when he’d vomited over the porch. Like seeing Svetlana was making him sick.

Ian looked at her, trying not to show how sickened he felt on his face. “Lana, you didn't really do that, did you?”

Svetlana made an impatient sound deep in her throat, gesturing with one hand, her face dark. “Yes, I told man with gun, ‘no, I will not do what you say,’” Svetlana said, her face screwed up in sarcastic distaste. She snorted. “Of course I do it. If I not do it, his piece of shit father kill me and get other girl, until someone do it. At least if it was me, no other girl have to.” She gestured at Mickey with her chin. “He not have to wait. It would be fast, I could—” Svetlana swallowed, seeming to falter for the first time.

Mickey finally managed to jerk his arm away and Ian let him. Mickey turned so his back was to Svetlana, breathing hard. Svetlana was staring at her lap. Ian could see her hands were shaking. The entire scenario felt so surreal it was like an out of body experience. He wanted to go to Mickey, comfort him somehow, but Svetlana also looked like she was about to crack.

Looking at her now, Ian was reminded of the first time they met, nearly a year and a half ago at this point.

He’d been on his way to work, when he’d still been stripping at that shithole club in Lakeview. He’d just started dipping his toes into hooking, into being up front with the guys he fucked that he wasn’t doing it because he liked their company, that he’d be more into it if they’d shell out some bills first. One of his earlier tricks gave him a ride, and Ian blew him as thanks before stepping out onto the curb, wiping his mouth as he stood.

A tall, dark-haired woman, Svetlana before he knew she was Svetlana, was watching him from her vantage point leaning under the awning of the liquor store next to the club. She was staring at Ian with an almost startling intensity.

At the time, Ian had frozen at the sudden unexpected and brutal wave of recognition that seemed to punch him right in the chest. It had felt cliché at the time, and it still did to remember it, but he thought idly that it was like looking into a mirror.

“Busy day, Carrot Boy?” she had said, nodding knowingly in the direction of the sedan with the trick inside already driving off down the street, the words smug and aggressive and friendly all at the same time, the unique combination that only Svetlana could pull off.

“Kind of,” Ian replied, his feet bringing him closer to her like there was a hook pulling on the center of his chest. He shook out a cigarette from his pack to suck down before his shift.

“You are okay?” she asked. One perfectly shaped eyebrow was arched. She tilted her head slightly, waiting for him to respond, like it mattered, like she actually wanted to be sure that Ian was, in fact, okay.

And that was when he knew he was looking at his best friend. Not so specifically, of course, not yet, but that moment of focused, unapologetic concern from a stranger suddenly made Svetlana not a stranger anymore.

He was reminded of that moment, looking at her now, as she sat staring at her own trembling hands. As she described, as best she could, the split second decision to protect herself and another boy she’d just met, the only way she knew how, even if it had only made things indescribably worse.

It was all so horrific Ian could barely wrap his head around it, and he was speaking as someone who had stumbled upon both a dead body and disembodied appendages in the past week.

Mickey, however, was not looking at her so charitably. “Yeah, whatever fucking helps you sleep at night, sweetheart.” He spun around and stalked out of the apartment.

He glanced back at Svetlana, even as he could hear Mickey stomping loudly down the stairs, torn.

Svetlana glanced up and saw his indecision. She wiped a hand roughly down her face, arching that killer eyebrow of hers at him. “Chase after loverboy,” she said.

“Are you—” Ian asked, but Svetlana cut him off crossly.

“I am not child, Ian. Now go.” Her hand cut through the air as she waved sharply at the doorway through which Mickey had disappeared.

Feeling like he was somehow letting her down, but unable to keep himself form following Mickey, Ian reached over and ruffled lightly at Svetlana’s hair. She swatted him away, swearing in Russian, but her face softened. She nodded pointedly at the door again, and with one last glance at her, Ian turned and loped after Mickey.

He didn’t realize until he was out on the street, spotting Mickey’s dark head already turning the corner, that he never told Svetlana or Mickey about the phone call with the applause. He decided to sit on it. There’d be time to deal with that later.

Chapter Text

As Mickey stalked down the street, he heard Ian long before he felt him appear at his side, the redhead's shoes slapping loudly against the pavement. Ian was not a stealth runner.

“Mick,” Ian called out as he reached Mickey. He slowed down to a stroll. Mickey was power-walking, but Ian had gazelle legs and it was easy for him to match Mickey’s pace.

“Fuck off,” Mickey said reflexively, even as he felt himself adjusting to Ian’s long-legged stride.

Ian didn’t say anything, letting them walk along in silence for a while. It was an unexpected gift, not having to talk, but also not being alone, and Mickey was surprised by how grateful he felt.

He could feel his mind self-defensively wrapping the whole night in a veil of surreality. The fucking hands, waking up to find Ian gone, walking in on that goddamn Russian bitch. One of those things would be bad enough. All three made him feel like Job (and maybe Ian was right, maybe he needed to lay off the Jeopardy just a little bit, jesus). Nothing felt real.

“Are you okay?” Ian asked softly after a while. They were still two blocks from the apartment, and Mickey had figured they were home free, but apparently not.

He sighed heavily. “I ain’t made of glass, man.”

“I know you aren’t,” Ian said dismissively. He stopped walking, turning to face Mickey, and Mickey stopped too without a thought. Ian made an aborted movement, his arm twitching toward Mickey, but then he wrestled it back to his side like his arm had a mind of his own. Ian actually looked at it, like he was begging it to just be cool for a second, and glanced at Mickey with a sigh. “So I mentioned earlier how I really want to, um, touch you all the time?”

Mickey blushed. Again. God, it was like he had some kind of fever whenever he was around Ian anymore. At least the early morning light didn’t illuminate his face too much. He didn’t nod, just watched Ian warily.

“Well, I really want to touch you now.” Ian grimaced. “Not, like, weird stuff or anything. Just, casual. Platonic. The comforting kind of touching, you know?”

Mickey rolled his eyes, because no, he didn’t really know. It sounded like something you’d see in a bad sitcom. Objectively he knew that people hugged and cuddled and did that lame shit all the time, but personally, in his life, it wasn’t a thing that happened. And he was cool with that. Totally. All cool.

But Ian wasn't satisfied, it seemed. “It’s just, I hate seeing you hurting.”

Mickey groaned. “God, I’m not fucking hurting, you’re such a girl sometimes, jesus.”

Ian’s eyes narrowed. “That is such a fucking ridiculous thing to say, and you know it.” His voice was sharp and it startled Mickey a little, the sudden hardness.

Ian exhaled slightly. “What I’m trying to say is, sometimes it helps me having another person touch me when I’m all shaken up.” Ian shrugged one shoulder. “But the way I’ve been trying to get close to you before, I know that was the wrong way to do it, at least with you. Just leaping in without permission and kissing you, or touching your hair, and goddamn, I’m saying the word ‘touch’ a lot, I must sound beyond creepy.”

Ian was blushing now too, and it made Mickey feel a little better about his burning face, watching in astonishment as Ian just went on and on and on, babbling into the night.

“But I’m just trying to say, your body is yours and I shouldn’t be doing anything without your permission. Without your consent.” Ian looked even more uncomfortable, but he pushed on. “And I know I sound like eighth grade health class right now, and you can just tell me to fuck off, because that’s your right. To tell me no, I mean.”

Mickey just stared at him. His felt his mouth hanging open a little bit. Because this little speech was literally painful to behold.

Ian huffed in defeat. “So can I…?” He held an arm out again, hovering above Mickey’s shoulders this time, waiting, eyes on Mickey’s, his expression alert.

Every instinct in Mickey’s body told him to swear, say something mean, shove Ian away, turn and walk, run, somewhere, anywhere to get away from this. But Ian looked so stupid standing there with his arm in the air, wrapped around no one, and there was no one on the street to see them anyway. It was just the two of them.

He tried not to think of the way his skin was prickling painfully, had been since he’d locked eyes with the fucking Russian standing next to Ian at that other apartment.

“Oh my god, fine, yes, put your stupid arm around me, if it will make this conversation go away, just fucking do it,” Mickey said finally, exasperated and nervous all at once.

A corner of Ian’s mouth moved up. Mickey huffed and took a step closer, waiting for Ian’s arm to slowly, gently descend around his shoulders, mentally anticipating the gradually increasing weight the way someone would prepare for a hit.

So he was pleased when Ian simply dropped his arm down without ceremony, jostling Mickey a little as he snaked around to cup Mickey’s shoulder with one warm hand. He squeezed once, pulling Mickey against him so his body tilted and he was pressed to his side, then let him stand upright again. It felt rough and casual, and it reminded Mickey a little of Colin or his uncle Ronnie, but also not at all, because there was a warmth in the depths of his belly at the touch he didn’t recognize.

The muscles in his shoulders began to unwind incrementally, in spite of everything.

And Mickey would never tell anyone ever, someone could put a gun to his head and he would still take it to his grave, but when Ian’s arm settled fully, Mickey had to lock his knees so he wouldn’t go lax and droop against Ian like his strings had been cut. It was the oddest, nicest, most frightening sensation.

“Are all hookers as fucking goddamn chatty as you are? Is that a thing?” Mickey asked, a little embarrassed at how shaky he sounded.

They started walking again. Their pace was slower now, more sedate, the weight of Ian’s arm around Mickey’s shoulder making him feel secured to the ground. They turned the corner onto Mickey’s block. He could see the off-colored red brick of his building up ahead.

Ian snorted. “Not really. I barely talk to tricks at all.” He sounded genuinely surprised at his own words. “Svetlana always makes fun of me about it, actually.”

“Fuck that fucking bitch,” Mickey bit out at the Russian’s name. His fingers flexed into fists, his shoulders tensing again.

Ian’s face twisted. “I’m sorry for what she did.”

Mickey jerked away from him half-heartedly, but not enough to pull entirely away. “You didn’t do anything, why the fuck are you apologizing?”

Ian shrugged, the movement jostling Mickey too. “Doesn’t mean I can’t still be sorry it happened to you. From what I heard back there, what Svetlana did was disgusting. It’s unforgivable. And I really want to beat the shit out of your dad, too, but,” he hesitated, “you should also know that Svetlana...well, she never apologizes, for anything, ever, but if she could, she would. Take my word for it, if you want.”

“Fuck you, then,” Mickey said. He hated hearing her name on Ian’s lips. He leaned away again, this time with more intent.

Ian’s grip loosened. “Do you want me to take my arm back now?” He didn’t sound angry, just curious.

Mickey prickled at his obvious loyalty to the fucking Russian, but Ian’s arm was still warm over his shoulders, and he didn’t really want Ian to pull away. So he frowned and decided to keep his mouth shut about it. Which was not something he normally did. Today was weird. “No,” he muttered.

“Okay,” Ian said. He began rubbing circles on Mickey’s shoulder with his thumb. It made Mickey’s whole body tingle.

Ian didn’t take his arm back until they were making their way up the stairs to Mickey’s apartment where it was too narrow for them to walk side by side.

Mickey shrugged his shoulders at the new weightlessness as he opened the door to the apartment. He felt residually angry, marginally wound up, sleepy and feisty and off-kilter. He blinked slowly, unsure what he wanted to do.

Beside him, Ian huffed out a laugh. Mickey spun on him, but Ian held up a hand in surrender. “Sorry! It’s just…have you ever seen a cat get startled awake? You look like that.”

Mickey shook his head. “There is something seriously wrong with you.” He wanted to keep arguing, but he was also hungry. “You like waffles?” he asked.

Ian titled his head to the side, appearing honestly baffled. “Is that a trick question?”

Mickey rolled his eyes. “Well, I make mine with brown sugar and apple jam,” he said.

“Now you’re just showing off,” Ian said, grinning.

And maybe Mickey was, so he just smirked as he went into the fridge to get the ingredients out. Having a task to do, a series of physical actions to complete a recipe, as well as Ian firmly seated on the kitchen stool, began to make him feel slightly calmer.

When he’d woken up earlier to go and take a leak, only to see that Ian was nowhere to be found, the panic that had flapped in his chest like a psychotic bat trying to escape had been so acute he still felt bruised with it. Even now, he found himself glancing obsessively back at Ian, just to confirm to himself that the other boy was indeed present and safe, at least for the moment.

“One day, I’ll have to cook for you, because this is getting out of hand,” Ian was saying, drawing Mickey back from his thoughts. Ian gestured at the container of strawberries in Mickey’s hand. “I’ve been told I make a very mediocre grilled cheese. So prepare yourself.”

“I’ll do that,” Mickey said, snorting a little.

While Mickey cooked, Ian went to the couch and turned on the ancient laptop. When Mickey asked what he was doing, Ian idly replied, “Work stuff,” which Mickey didn’t really understand. At least he wasn’t looking up serial killer trivia or some shit.

When he set the tower of waffles on the counter, Ian joined him and they descended on the food like locusts, or teenaged boys, which at the moment seemed functionally identical. They had put away two-thirds of the waffles when Ian cleared his throat.

“So your dad caught you with some dude, huh?” he asked hesitantly. He used his fork to draw designs in the pool of syrup on his plate.

To Mickey’s surprise, he didn’t immediately clam up at Ian’s question. He wondered why. He’d never talked about it with anyone, not really, aside from a vague conversation with Ronnie when he’d called his uncle, concussed and swollen and looking for a place to stay. Maybe the events of the night and morning had shaken something loose in him. Or maybe it was Ian’s face, carefully neutral and nonjudgmental.

“It wasn’t anything special. I don’t even remember the guy’s name,” Mickey said. The lie tasted sour in his mouth. As much as he wished he didn’t remember anything about the kid, that he had been nothing more than an un-credited extra in the ongoing cast of Mickey’s life, he did remember. He remembered a lot about him. It would’ve been easier if he didn’t.

Ian nodded, and his easy acceptance of Mickey’s lie was what made Mickey man up and correct himself. “Fuck, that’s not true, I remember his name.” He exhaled. “Jimmy Carter.”

He watched Ian’s lips press together, his eyebrows knitting as he absorbed that information. When he spoke, his voice was halting. “You got blown by…our nation’s 41st president?”

Mickey clenched his jaw. How he didn’t see that one coming he’d never know.

He gave Ian a tired look. “Are you fucking…first of all, he was the 39th president, you asshole,” Mickey said, ignoring Ian’s reflexive muttering of “Nerd,” under his breath, and pressed on, “and second of all, no, I was not messing around with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, jesus motherfucking christ.”

Ian still looked confused, so Mickey elaborated. “You know, the Carters, they lived over by the old baseball diamonds, his dad was head of the plumber’s union for a while?”

Recognition sparked in Ian’s eyes. “Oh,” he said. Then louder: “Oh! Jimmy. Jimmy Carter. He was like a year or two ahead of me, right, that Mexican kid?”

“Mexican and Polish,” Mickey corrected, hating that he knew that small detail.

Most of all, he hated remembering that for a hot second there, as a stupid sixteen-year-old eager and scared and excited and totally fucking overwhelmed at the prospect of another human being aside from himself touching his junk, Mickey had let himself get carried away. Let himself get attached to Jimmy, like an idiot.

“Was he the first one who ever…?” Ian trailed off, gesturing vaguely with his fork.

Mickey studied the remaining half-waffle on his plate, his appetite subsiding. “Yep.”

“And then your dad…?”

“Yep.”

“And then Svetlana.” That one wasn’t a question. Ian’s voice didn’t go up at the end. He was watching Mickey, who was looking at his plate.

He didn’t say anything this time, just nodding to confirm.

Ian was quiet for a minute. “Shit, man.”

After another quiet minute, Ian shifted, his hand hovering near Mickey’s forearm over the kitchen counter. He raised his eyebrows, waiting. It took a second to get what Ian was silently asking for permission for, but when Mickey understood, he nodded jerkily. Ian laid his warm hand lightly on Mickey’s arm, his fingers lax, not gripping, just keeping a steady pressure on Mickey’s skin. It felt good. Weird, but good.

Ian stood up and began gathering the plates, sticking the plate with the remaining two waffles into the fridge for later. Mickey watched him, waiting for him to react more somehow. When he didn’t, just went on tidying up the kitchen, Mickey let himself breathe again.

When he was finished, Ian leaned against the counter on his elbows. He raised an eyebrow. Mickey forced himself not to look at his collarbones where they peeked above the V of his t-shirt, at the strong line of his neck.

“Want to see if Jeopardy is on?” Ian asked, his voice lightly teasing. Mickey flicked him off, but he was grinning now too, which was amazing considering how awful he'd felt just an hour before.

Jeopardy was on, of course. Basic cable was pretty predictable like that. It was still early morning, but neither Mickey nor Ian made moves to go back to bed, both too wired to close their eyes. Instead they settled into a game show marathon.

The first show was a rerun, and Mickey had seen it about nine times before (which he did not tell Ian, instead preening a little when Ian seemed suitably impressed by Mickey’s skill at World Geography), and it was a comfortable distraction. They sat near each other on the couch, not quite touching, Mickey calling out the correct answers and Ian alternating between shouting “What is Australia?” to almost every question and quietly ribbing Mickey for his intense focus during Double Jeopardy.

After a while, Mickey began to feel twitchy again. He kept glancing at Ian, watching the way he grinned as he called out ridiculous answers, and his heartbeat picked up speed. The impulse was strong, nearly impossible to ignore, the memory of his warm arm over Mickey’s shoulder from earlier like a memory under his skin. If only there was someway to get it again, without having to ask for it.

When one episode blended into the next, he gave into it.

Keeping his eyes glued to the TV, Mickey leaned sideways, the movement gradual, until his shoulder was pressing softly against Ian’s. He saw Ian go still out of the corner of his eye, but beyond that he didn’t react. Mickey gritted his teeth in frustration, then twisted his body so the tip of his shoulder pressed more into the joint near Ian’s armpit. Finally, Ian looked down at him.

“Can I help you?” he asked, bemused.

Mickey glared at him, because must they always talk about everything? Instead, he shifted again, elbowing Ian in the ribs, adjusting so he was practically laying half on top of Ian at this point.

Ian opened his mouth, but Mickey squeezed his eyes shut. “I swear to god, if you give me another bad-touch consent lecture I will kick you in the balls. Just, fucking,” he paused, nudging Ian’s arm with his shoulder again, “put your arm around me, asshole.”

“Smooth like buttah,” Ian said, shaking his head. But he lifted his arm and draped it around Mickey’s shoulder. Like before, he squeezed once, lightly, bringing Mickey closer for a moment and then letting him settle into his side.

“Don’t make it weird,” Mickey groused.

Ian grinned, but he didn’t say anything else. Which was nice, because it allowed Mickey to just drink in the sensation. Ian was warm, and he smelled really good, like Mickey’s body wash and cigarettes and clean skin, and something else, something that Mickey could only really identify as Ian.

They watched another episode, getting used to the feeling of sitting wrapped up in one another. If Mickey didn’t know better, it almost seemed like a normal morning for them, like nothing fucked up had ever happened.

After a while, Mickey spoke, unaware of how the question had been niggling at him until it was out of his mouth. “Do you think Ronnie was right?” he asked Ian.

Ian turned to look him. Mickey couldn’t help but notice how close Ian’s face was to his. “Right about what?”

Mickey hesitated, picking at the hem of his jeans, because saying the words out loud made them more real. “About how whoever’s doing this, they might be connected to you somehow?”

He watched Ian look away, focusing back on the TV as he swallowed. “I don’t think so,” he said after a pause. “I mean, I can’t. That can’t be what’s going on.”

Mickey wanted to push it, but Ian’s face looked troubled now, so instead he let his body press just slightly more against Ian’s side. He wasn’t sure, but he thought maybe he felt Ian relax slightly at the contact. It made Mickey feel good, normal for a second, like the kind of person who could comfort someone else, who wasn’t so broken that they needed to be the one being taken care of all the time. It was a nice feeling.

 

****

 

It was an incredibly low bar, but Ian felt vindicated the longer things remained quiet over the next few weeks. He liked knowing an increasing number of days stood between him and the events of that Wednesday in Humboldt Park, the box on the porch, the phone call.

At first, Ronnie’s words, I think you’ve got an admirer, were stuck in Ian’s head and he was tense for days, anticipating the next terrible thing that might happen.

And once it was in his head, it was like the world’s most fucked up song and he couldn’t get it out of there. Especially when it started to make a weird, horrible kind of sense. It put him in mind of a cat bringing in half-dead mice and squirrels to its owner, dropping them at his feet for praise.

But then, nothing happened. Or really, something weirder happened. Ian’s life fell into the strangest, calmest pattern, something he hadn’t felt since he’d moved out of Fiona’s house.

He and Mickey fell into a rhythm, one that Ian secretly enjoyed so much he was almost embarrassed.

He tossed Mickey a hundred bucks at the end of each week, ignoring his protests, and even though he had a sneaking suspicion Mickey wasn’t putting the money toward rent, it still made him feel less like a leech when he was contributing something.

He slept on Mickey’s couch every night, and even though it was hell on his back, Ian found himself more well rested every morning than he thought was physically possible.

Mickey worked most days with his uncle, and Ian hung around the house when he eventually rolled off the couch, checking the forums and scouting new clients, sometimes fruitlessly searching for murders of sex workers in Chicago and looking for mentions of the hands or the girl from Humboldt Park, before clearing the browsers carefully. He and Mickey wouldn’t cross paths until the evening, when Mickey would make dinner, which was getting completely out of control in Ian’s opinion. Spicy kielbasa, piles of fluffy dumplings with sour kraut and cream, gallons of flavorful borscht sitting in the fridge just waiting for Ian to gorge on during the day—it was never-ending and Ian eventually stopped stuffing himself like he didn’t know where his next meal was coming from. Because he did. He felt better fed than he had been in months.

They would eat and then bicker over what show to watch before Ian went to work for the night.

It was so domestic, and Ian was constantly surprised by how much he liked it. Back in the day, when Kash would try to cook for him or one of the early tricks tried to finagle a more formal relationship out of a hook up, Ian had shied away. With Mickey, it was comforting, and easy. He wasn’t sure why.

Because Mickey wasn’t a trick, his mind easily supplied. Mickey was his friend.

A friend who, as it turned out, was mad into cuddling but hated asking for it. Which left Ian in a predicament, because he wasn’t just being cute with his whole speech on enthusiastic consent before. But after that first night he found himself becoming addicted to the casual contact just as much as Mickey seemed to be. Lounging on the couch curled against each other watching Jeopardy, bumping shoulders in the kitchen, pressing their knees together under the counter as they ate dinner—he wanted all of it, so he learned to watch Mickey for his tells, the subtle tilt of his body, a nod of his head. Ian still asked for permission more times than not, and Mickey always rolled his eyes, but Ian wanted to make sure that Mickey was the one initiating it.

All he had to do was recall Mickey’s face when he'd been surprised by Svetlana at Ian's side, and it reinforced his commitment to making sure Mickey was the one in control.

He hadn’t mentioned Svetlana to Mickey again, or asked any more about the incident with Mickey’s dad, since their conversation the week before. Svetlana had sent him a few messages to check in, but so far Ian was avoiding her. He felt awful about it, like he was abandoning his best friend, but he was still struggling to come to terms with what she’d done. He knew he wasn’t being fair, but he needed some space to figure it out.

Ian had been living with Mickey for a week when Mickey began asking tentative questions about Ian’s work. Ian figured it was more or less inevitable. If you weren’t in the life, he knew it could elicit a certain lurid fascination. It was one of the reasons most of the people he hung out with were hookers too. It sucked to be the novelty all the time.

But Ian got the feeling it wasn’t just sex work, but pretty much most things about sex that were mysterious and ambiguous for Mickey. Ian hadn’t pressed much since last week, but he got the sense that in Mickey’s mind, he was still struggling to separate sex from getting your ass kicked. Ian could appreciate that.

So when Mickey tentatively asked Ian how he found tricks, he wasn’t surprised by the question, but what he didn’t expect was that he would swallow his usual snarky response, why, you looking to get into the business, and actually answer. He just let Mickey ask him questions, answering as best he could.

In the process, he found himself examining his job in a way he never really had, in the way you don’t often scrutinize situations you’ve fallen into unexpectedly.

“I usually find them online,” Ian said, keeping his tone light.

“What, like Craigslist?” Mickey asked. It was a rare afternoon he wasn't working with Ronnie, and he was watching Ian text back and forth with his tricks for the night, one of their ubiquitous game shows humming quietly in the background. Ian glanced up and caught his breath a little at the absorbed expression on Mickey’s face, like he could stare at Ian forever. Mickey blinked and looked away when Ian caught him staring, making Ian duck his head to hide his smile.

“Sometimes. There’s some forums, where it’s easier to find tricks other people have worked with, so you can get references and stuff. Make sure you’re not going on a date with the Craigslist killer or some shit,” Ian said, the joke coming off a little more intense than he’d meant, given the circumstances.

Mickey tilted his head to the side. “So you don’t, like, go the street corner and just stick a hip out?”

Ian laughed at that one, but the humor was kind of hollow. “Nah, man, that street life’s too rough for me. It’s too rough for anyone, really. Plus you don’t make any money, that’s why most of the girls you see out there look all wild-eyed. It’s a tough fucking life.”

He wanted to add that before he’d met Svetlana and knew nothing about nothing, he’d been on the edge of that life, considering taking risks that looking back on it now, nearly took his breath away. He didn’t think Mickey would appreciate hearing about Svetlana now though, even if she had essentially saved Ian. And frankly Ian didn’t want to revisit how close he’d come to doing something really stupid.

Mickey had moved on though, fixated on something else. “So how does it work? You just let all these wrinkly old queens fuck you, or something?”

He seemed so earnestly confused that Ian had to bite the inside of his lip to keep from smiling, knowing Mickey would snap his mouth shut and storm off in a huff if he ever suspected Ian of laughing at him. Which Ian wasn’t, not really. It was just, in his own way, Mickey was so innocent. It was so unexpected that Ian found himself continuously charmed by it.

And it was a common assumption, Ian figured. Most people saw him, saw his young face, and assumed most of his tricks got off on giving it to the hot young twink. Some did, but not all.

He tried to find the right words to explain. “You’d be…surprised by how many tricks actually want, you know, penetrative sex. It’s mostly just blowjobs, really. A lot of tricks are scared of catching something. Which I can understand. I mean, I always use condoms and I get tested at the free clinic all the time, but for all they know, I’m out here sharing needles and going to bareback orgies,” Ian said, trying for levity. Mickey just looked thoughtful, his eyebrows knitting together.

“Huh,” was all he said. Then, “Don’t you ever get sick of it?”

Ian considered for a second. “Sometimes. Most times it’s not too bad.” It was the most honest he’d ever been about it, he reflected.

He and Svetlana and her friends never discussed it much; there didn’t seem to be much point discussing whether they liked it, really. He knew a few hipsters over in Lincoln Park he’d run into at a party once who hooked on the side while they attended DePaul. They insisted on referring to themselves only as sex workers, encouraged Ian to find pride in his work, emphasized the revolutionary element of reclaiming sexual agency through sex outside societal norms, their big words slippery like music in his ears. At the time Ian had nodded along, feeling swept up in their ideas. Later, when he told Svetlana about it, she just rolled her eyes. She said it was easy to be a revolutionary when your parents were still paying your cell phone bill. And any inspiration he’d felt had faded and become hollow.

He decided his relationship with hooking was necessary, not revolutionary. Which wasn’t the worst thing in the world, he told himself.

“Doesn’t it gross you out?” Mickey pressed. His face was screwed up slightly in distaste. “All those fucking gross-ass dudes?”

Ian smiled easily. “They’re not all gross-ass dudes. But, yeah, some of them are worse than others.” He spread out his fingers, gesturing feebly. “But it’s money, dude. It’s way more money than I’d get doing anything else. You get used to it. You can get used to anything, really.” It sounded grim, even to him. But it was the truth, or as close to it as he could articulate.

He noticed Mickey watching him, a look on his face he couldn’t quite place. He definitely didn’t look convinced by Ian’s words. The expression wasn’t pity, but it was something close. It made Ian snap his phone shut, standing up and moving into the kitchen, eager to break the moment.

Because in that moment it was suddenly so clear to Ian that it made his head hurt to realize it: he liked Mickey. He was more attracted to him than he’d been to anybody in a long time, and more than that, he cared about him. He wanted to protect him, and make him laugh, but he also wanted, above all, for Mickey to like him back.

And here he was, telling Mickey stories about his job that made the other boy look at him with such targeted concern it made Ian’s skin crawl.

“You ready to eat something?” Ian asked. Mickey was still frowning, watching him, and Ian had a sinking feeling that Mickey was going to keep asking him questions about work.

His phone rang, and he scrambled to answer, eternally grateful for the distraction. He was still taken aback by the caller.

It was Detective Johnson, and she sounded harried. Ian was a little dumbstruck to hear from her, and he turned so his back was to Mickey, curling his shoulder protectively as he walked to the window for privacy.

“I just wanted to check in,” she said over the phone.

Ian frowned. He was glad she couldn’t see the confusion on his face. “Well. Thanks, I guess. I’m okay though.”

“Okay,” she said. There was the sound of rustling, the scream off other phones ringing off the hook and a half dozen conversations taking place in the background. “Well, you have my card. You can call me if you need to. If someone’s giving you a hard time.” She sounded like she was choosing her words carefully.

“Will do,” Ian said, trying not to be too flippant but not actually succeeding.

“I’m serious, Ian," Johnson said sternly.

“Seriously, will do.”

“Wiseass,” Johnson said gruffly, but she didn’t sound irritated. “Shouldn’t you be in school?”

“It’s passing period,” Ian lied easily.

“Well, hang up and get back to it,” Johnson scolded. “Go learn something.”

Ian assured her he would, and they said goodbye and hung up. He was hit with the strangest twinge of guilt for lying to her.

He turned back to Mickey, who was waiting with an expectant look on his face. Ian shrugged. “Man, but my life is just fucking full of cops anymore,” he said.

“Which one was that?”

“Officer Johnson, the lead detective from the other night,” Ian said, using the shorthand they’d developed to refer to the Night Of The Hands, as Ian had taken to calling it in his mind.

“Everything cool?” Mickey asked.

Ian shrugged again. “I think? I don’t know. Yes. I think everything’s okay.”

But Ian still felt off kilter from the call, the feeling lasting into the next day when he headed out of the house, already running late for an afternoon appointment with a trick, and he hurried toward the L station, trying to outrun the feeling with each long stride of his legs.

Sometimes Ian felt weird meeting a trick when it was still light out. Svetlana always scoffed at his reticence. “Fucking is fucking is fucking,” she would say. And maybe that was the difference between Ian and someone who could hook long-term for an actual living, his natural jumpiness at a minor detail like time of day compared with a professional like Svetlana who wouldn’t even blink.

Whatever it was, he was in a weird mood. He felt wary, which was a bad attitude to see a trick in anyway, and it all just went downhill from there.

The trick wanted to meet at his home in Wicker Park, and as soon as Ian knocked on the door the guy dragged him in, shoving him back against the door and going for his belt.

“Hey, easy there, buddy,” Ian said, trying to ease himself away from the trick, Benjamin, he thought his name was, but he had him saved in his phone as Short Guy.

Short Guy was panting a little. “On your knees,” he said. He reached into the pocket of his cargo shorts and pulled out a wad of bills, handing them to Ian. Ian counted quickly, flicking the edges of the bills with his thumb, then put it all in his back pocket.

“Eager today, huh?” he said, smirking, but Short Guy reached and shoved at his shoulders, trying to manhandle him to the ground. Ian was bigger, but he let the trick guide him down.

It was a quick blowjob, maybe quicker than the trick wanted but Ian was good at his job and he wasn’t really in the mood the drag it out. If the guy was so eager to be blown in his own foyer, Ian didn’t think he had the right to expect a leisurely experience.

The guy came with a weak moan and without any warning, yanking out of Ian’s mouth and coming across his face.

“Jesus, come on, man,” Ian protested, rubbing at an eye. He glared up at the trick, who was breathing heavily, his eyes closed. Finally, he looked down at Ian.

“Thanks for coming by,” the trick said awkwardly.

Ian rolled his eyes, getting to his feet again. Short Guy seemed a little embarrassed, handing Ian a damp paper towel from the kitchen as he saw himself out. Ian rubbed at his burning eye, blinking at the sudden light on the porch again as the door click shut behind him.

Back on the street again, Ian tried not to let the encounter color his mood, but it was difficult. Sixty bucks for ten minutes of work wasn’t bad. Then again, Ian’s knees hurt from the cold tile in the front hall and the come in his left eye burned like hell. More than that, he felt dirty. Sometimes at the end of a trick he felt powerful, needed, like he’d made someone’s day a little better. Other times, like today, he felt like nothing more than an orifice for hire, and it made him moody. Even though he knew he was more than that, that if some asshole thought he was less it was because of the asshole, not Ian, it still bothered him. Maybe he was getting too soft for all this, or maybe he was just out sorts today. He couldn’t tell.

He took his phone out of his pocket without thinking, thumbing through the contacts until he found Mickey’s name. He was about to call him when a message came through. It was Lip.

The message was characteristically terse: We still on for dinner or what?

Ian groaned. Fuck. He’d forgotten. He and Lip had a semi-standing monthly dinner date, where Ian enjoyed a meal courtesy of Lip’s student loans and Lip bullied Ian about his life choices and decisions. It was unpleasant, but usually not life-threatening.

Heaving a sigh, Ian spun and started walking in the opposite direction, using a few bills from the money in his pocket to catch the bus.

Lip was waiting in the diner when Ian came through the door, sitting in the same back corner they usually sat at, his arms crossed.

“Was about to give you up for dead,” Lip said. He stood and pulled Ian into a rough hug, and for a second Ian let himself enjoy it, the familiar feel of Lip. Lip pulled back and looked at him, making a face. “You got pinkeye or something?”

Ian brought a hand up, rubbing at his eye again. He hadn't stop to think how red it would be in his hurry. He shrugged. “Maybe. I think it’s just dry, though.” He sat down and fiddled with the menu. “How’s classes?”

Lip seemed skeptical, but Ian wasn’t about to tell his older brother oh yeah, that, I just have come in my eye from a man who paid me for sex, no big deal so Lip could suck it. After a minute, Lip sat down too and eyed him over the table.

“They’re good. Tough, but way more interesting than high school,” he said. His tone went deceptively casual. “You give any more thought to going back to get your diploma?”

“Yep,” Ian lied. “I’m really thinking about it.” This was a familiar song and dance of theirs. Lip pushed for Ian to go back to school, Ian assured him he was just about to, Lip knew he was lying and got pissed, Ian knew he couldn’t trust Lip with the truth without his brother starting an argument and so he stuck to the comfort of the lie.

“Oh yeah?” Lip said testily. “You been thinking about it, huh? That’s a pretty long thought. Almost feels like it’s coming up on two years of thinking about it.”

“Worst thing you can do is rush a big decision,” Ian said evenly. He locked eyes with Lip, recognizing his same determined glint in his brother’s eye.

Lip broke first, sighing. “I’m just worried about you, man.”

Ian rubbed a hand down his face and reached to take a gulp of water. “I know you are.”

Ian steered the conversation toward more neutral waters, asking about the siblings it felt like he hadn’t seen in years. Lip was always better at keeping people in his orbit, even if once they were there, he made sure to keep them at arms length. It was Ian who was in danger of shooting off, moving to the edges of the radar screen, out of view of his family.

“Carl hasn’t gotten suspended once this year,” Lip was saying. He sounded proud, and thinking of all the shit Carl used to get into back in the neighborhood, Ian found himself smiling too. “I think it’s because that pansy-ass school he’s going to doesn’t believe in one-strike rules, which is good for Carl. I saw him three weeks ago. He seemed good. And Liam’s good too. Big. He’s getting tall, like you.” Lip trailed off, his smile dimming. It was hard for Ian to keep smiling too, hearing about his little brothers growing up in different lives, away from him.

“You heard from Fiona?” Ian asked, anticipating the answer. He hadn’t spoken directly to Fiona since the spring.

Lip shook his head. “No, but Debbie keeps me updated. She sounds like she loves Michigan.”

The conversation lagged after that. It always did, after the token state of the union on the other Gallagher kids was over. The waitress came and took their order, and Lip used his fake ID to get a beer for them to share. It was a fancy microbrew Ian had never heard of, and it tasted nice and sweet going down his throat, fully washing away the trick from earlier.

When their food came, Lip ate his burger intently, avoiding Ian’s eyes, and took the lull as his chance to dive in. “You still working?”

“No, I quit the Kash N Grab last year,” Ian said, purposefully misunderstanding Lip’s question.

Lip gave him a look. “Don’t be a smartass.”

Ian stuffed a handful of fries in his mouth, buying time. They had some kind of spice on them, smoky-sweet, and he thought if Mickey was there, he’d probably be able to identify the combination.

“Ian, I know you think I’m trying to give you a hard time for the sake of it,” Lip said, “but surprising as it may sound, I actually struggle with the idea of my little brother working as a prostitute.”

Ian rolled his eyes. “Then don’t think about it.”

Lip sat back, setting his half-eaten burger on the counter. “You could come live with me at the dorms, you know.” He took a swig of the beer. “I could set you up with a job. There’s a café on UIC campus near my building that’s always hiring.”

Ian stayed silent. This was also a familiar strategy of Lip's, and even though it was familiar, he still had a hard time untangling his own reaction to it, so it was easier to keep his mouth shut.

Because Lip was right. Ian had options, they were shitty options, but they existed. He could get by on Illinois minimum wage, and crash illegally in his brother’s dorm. But then he would be under Lip’s thumb, admitting to himself and his brother that he was just a stupid kid who needed Lip to take care of him. And he wasn’t. He could take care of himself. He’d been doing that since he left the group home a year and a half ago.

But then it left Ian open to the question of whether he was hooking, if he was living the way he was, because that’s what he wanted to do, or because he had no other option. Or, most unthinkable of all, because he didn’t want to admit he was wrong.

“I’ll think about it,” Ian dodged. Evasive answers seemed to piss Lip off more than outright refusals, and Ian watched him ball up his napkin and throw it on the table.

“Goddamnit, Ian,” Lip said. “I’m going crazy over here, thinking about you on the streets, never knowing if I’m going to wake up and see a picture of your dead fucking body in the newspaper.”

Ian winced, the jibe hitting too close to home. It had never crossed his mind to bring up the body and the hands to Lip, and now he just pushed the information further down.

Lip raised an eyebrow, his face going taut. “I could just call Child Services. Set the cops on your ass.”

It was an empty threat, but it still pissed Ian off. He didn’t like being threatened, especially by Lip. “Yeah, you think they’d devote the man-hours to finding some teenage runaway from the South Side? Come on, Lip.” Ian stood up, reaching to gulp down the last of the beer. “Thanks for dinner, man. I’ll see you around.”

He was halfway out of the restaurant when Lip called his name. “Ian! Ian, come on, wait.” Ian clenched his jaw tight, but he forced himself to wait at the door. Lip joined him, holding out a folded stack of bills. “Take it,” Lip said.

Ian wanted to refuse it. The only reason he didn’t was because theoretically, the money wasn’t Lip’s, it was the federal government’s, and the weak technicality allowed Ian to grasp the bills in his hands. “Thanks,” he said stiffly.

“You know I love you, man,” Lip said, and he looked pained. Ian hated that he was so worried, but it also made him angry. He never asked for Lip to take on the mantle of parental unit. That had been Fiona’s job, and she’d fucked off to Michigan. Ian was on his own, now.

“I know,” Ian said anyway, and let Lip pull him into a fierce hug. Ian pulled away after a minute and walked away without looking back.

His mind was elsewhere and he barely registered the walk home. He buzzed to be let in, hoping Mickey was already home, and breathed a sigh of thanks when the door buzzed and he could let himself in. The apartment door was unlocked and he walked into a living room that smelled like something with meat and spices.

“Hey,” Mickey called from the kitchen, “ I didn’t know if you were coming home or not.” Ian realized he was about an hour later than they usually ate and flushed guiltily, but Mickey didn’t seem too worked up about it. He nodded at the pot on the stove. “Made chili.”

“It smells awesome, but I already ate,” Ian said, collapsing on the stool at the kitchen counter.

“Okay,” Mickey said, a little uncertainly. “No big deal, it’ll keep in the fridge for lunch or whatever.”

It was a sweet gesture, the kind that usually left Ian feeling both startled and even more smitten with Mickey, that he had this adorable, gorgeous boy willing to keep him fed and sheltered. But right now, it reminded him too much of Lip, and he bristled.

“Whatever,” Ian said. He watched Mickey stiffen out of the corner of his eye.

“What’s with you, man?” Mickey asked.

Ian threw his hands up. “Nothing, god.” His feet tapped an anxious rhythm against the linoleum. “What’d you do today?”

“Ran a job with my uncle,” Mickey said, barely pausing before zeroing back in on Ian. “Seriously, what’s going on? Something happen?”

“Nothing happened, can’t I just have a fucking off day, jesus.”

“It’s just, you didn’t have this fucking chip on your shoulder when I saw you yesterday, so what’s different today?” Mickey insisted.

Ian shot him a look. “God, for someone who always gets so fucking pissy when I want to talk about stuff, you’re sure pretty pushy tonight.”

“Fine,” Mickey said, throwing the lid on the pot of chili with extra force. “Do whatever the fuck you want, I don’t give a shit.”

Ian shot up from the stool, blocking his exit out of the kitchen.

“No, if you want to really get our feelings involved, go ahead, tough guy. Get in there," Ian taunted. He wasn’t sure why, but once he started trying to wind Mickey up, he found it hard to stop. He watched with satisfaction as Mickey’s short fuse ignited.

“Fuck you!” Mickey shouted, shoving both hands against Ian’s chest. Ian stumbled back with the force, laughing a little wildly.

Ian shoved him back on the shoulder, the move more of a jab than an actual push. “What, you gonna kick my ass now? Get a little fag bash in?”

Mickey’s whole face went tight with anger. “Jesus, what is the matter with you tonight?”

“Let me guess, it’s not as fun to take care of your little pet when he starts mouthing off, is it?” Ian said. God, he felt so ugly, saying the words, but he felt too out of control to really stop them.

“Don’t be so damn dramatic, for fuck's sake,” Mickey shot back.

“Well, maybe I don’t actually have a sign on my back that says, ‘Fucking save me, I’m helpless’, you ever think of that?” Ian shouted, aware through the haze of his anger that he wasn’t really talking to Mickey, but Mickey was the one in front of him, so he was who was getting it.

“Who said you were helpless? I don’t think you’re helpless, you asshole!” Mickey yelled back.

They were both stepping closer to each other, practically screaming into each other’s faces, and Ian felt heat building up from the base of his spine, racing over the surface of his skin.

“That’s what you think, though, right? That I’m some poor little hooker that needs you to Richard Gere me a new life?”

Mickey actually sputtered. “Richard Gere—what the fuck are you talking about?” He reached out and grabbed a handful of Ian’s shirt, giving it a rough shake. “Dude, get a hold of yourself.”

Ian smacked his hand away, reaching forward instead to grab two handfuls of Mickey’s plaid button-up. “Because I don’t need you to fucking save me,” he bit out, and even as he said the words he flushed, because what a cliché, what a fucking predictable argument he was having, sabotaging the one good thing he had in his life right now like a classic fucking idiot.

Mickey’s face was flushed red with anger, his pale skin going blotchy. “I’m not trying to save you, you don’t need to be saved.”

“I know I fucking don’t!” Ian retorted.

Mickey made a face. “That’s what I’m saying!”

“Okay, then!” Ian snapped his mouth shut.

They stood staring at each other, breathing harshly into each other’s faces. Ian couldn’t stop looking down at Mickey’s mouth. He swore he saw Mickey’s lips part slightly, or maybe that was what he wanted to see, but the next thing he knew he was diving forward.

Unlike last time, Mickey kissed Ian back at first, pressing his mouth a little clumsily against Ian’s in a way that made Ian go immediately hard. He sucked Mickey’s bottom lip into his mouth, tracing it with his tongue before pulling back to capture his mouth fully again. Mickey let him kiss him one more time, and then he jerked back.

Ian yanked himself away as soon as he felt Mickey move. He was panting a little. Mickey was watching him, wide-eyed, from across the kitchen. His lips were red and swollen.

“Fuck, why do I keep doing that?” Ian demanded to himself, rubbing the heels of his hands into his eyes until he saw stars. He brought his hands down, face burning at the sight of Mickey lingering, face shocked, on the other side of the kitchen. Ian’s arms dropped to his side. “Mick, I’m so sorry—”

Mickey held his hand up. “God, shut up for a minute, okay.” He seemed to be concentrating on slowing down his breathing, eyes focused on Ian’s chin.

Ian waited, drowning in mortification. Why didn’t he have any fucking boundaries around Mickey, he thought miserably. Mickey was finally starting to let down his guard with Ian, and Ian had to run in, pushing for more, and ruin it all. Fucking goddamnit.

He sat back down on the kitchen stool while he waited for the hammer to drop. Finally, Mickey approached the counter. He had a determined look on his face now.

He leveled Ian with a look. “Now are you going to tell me what the hell happened today or what?”

It was the last thing Ian expected him to say. He gawked a little. “Are you serious?”

“Are you serious?” Mickey retorted. He leaned on the counter. “You think you can just come home, start some dumb fight and then kiss me to get out of talking about what's going on with you?” Improbably, Mickey started to smile a little. “I mean, I know I’m pretty irresistible, but come on, you’re supposed to be the professional here.”

“Okay, take it easy,” Ian tried to interject, but he was smiling a little now too.

“So what happened?” Mickey raised his eyebrows, waiting.

Ian cracked pretty quickly. “I had lunch with my brother. I had an irritating appointment with a trick. It was all stupid, I don’t know,” Ian said. His eyes met Mickey’s. “I am sorry, Mickey.”

Mickey held a hand up. “Would you chill?” He sighed, folding his hands on the counter and studying his knuckles. “It’s not that I’m not…into it too, you know.”

For once, Ian forced himself to shut up and wait for Mickey to keep speaking.

“I mean look at you,” Mickey said, gesturing at Ian. “Of course I’m into it. I just.” And he stopped, chewing his lip.

Ian couldn’t help himself. “You’re just a little nervous,” he offered.

Mickey’s eyes darted to Ian’s. “I’m not fucking nervous,” he snapped. Nervously, in Ian’s opinion.

“Of course you’re not,” Ian hurried to agree. “I’m just saying, hypothetically, if you were, I’d totally get it.” He kept his tone careful. Mickey looked ready to say something sharp in response, but Ian’s phone chirped, the alert for his alarm going off. He had an appointment in twenty minutes. Fucking perfect timing, he thought in frustration.

“That work?” Mickey asked. He seemed a little discomfited, over what exactly Ian wasn’t sure, over Ian going to work or what they were talking about.

“Yeah, I gotta head out,” Ian said, disappointed at the interruption. He stood from the stool, but he hesitated. “Are we okay?”

Mickey seemed to consider, letting Ian sweat it out, then he smiled that tiny smile again. He took a step around the counter so he was standing in front of Ian, and after a moment where he seemed to steel himself, he went up on his tiptoes a little and pressed a quick kiss to Ian’s cheek, surprising him yet again.

“Have a good time at work,” Mickey said, smirking. He tilted his head to the side. “Is that weird to say? Fuck, I don’t know. I just hope it’s better than earlier.”

Ian felt like his head was spinning, and he could only nod dumbly. His cheek was burning where Mickey had kissed him.

“No, that’s not weird to say,” he said finally. He sounded dazed to his own ears. Mickey gave him a gentle shove in the direction of the door, and Ian let himself out of the apartment, the image of Mickey's smug, gentle expression burned into his mind.

Ian left the apartment building in a haze, barely noticing where he walked, heading toward the condo where he usually met tonight’s trick on muscle memory alone. As he walked down, he realized he had a dopey smile on his face. He pulled out his phone to text Mickey, then put it away, trying not to be weird. Then he took it out again. Fuck it, maybe he was a little weird for Mickey already.

As he went to type out something stupid, he wasn’t quite sure what, he was interrupted by an incoming call. Frustrated, especially because he didn’t recognize the number, he flipped it open.

“How's it going?” he said into the phone, too irritable to focus on sounding alluring or flirty if it was tonight's trick calling from an unlisted number like he usually did.

There was deep breathing on the other end of the line. Somehow, it took a few seconds for it to click in Ian’s mind. It had been nearly two weeks, after all. But then he heard the same deep, almost clicking sound dragging over the line, the growl instantly recognizable to Ian. His entire body went cold.

“Fuck off!” he screamed, startled by his own instant fury. He hated whoever was on the other end of the line. He hated that they had the power to interrupt his life, take away even this tiny moment of contentment.

He flipped the phone shut, glancing around wildly, but aside from a couple walking their dog at the end of the street and an old woman limping around the corner, Ian was alone on the street. The familiar sense of being watched crept up around his shoulders.

The condo was across town and usually he groused internally at wasting the money on the train, but tonight he was grateful to be surrounded by people.

He got off near the Gold Coast, hurrying along even though the streets weren’t nearly as empty this close to Michigan Avenue. His heart was still pounding, but by now he had his breathing under control again.

Tonight’s trick was one of Ian’s regulars, an older guy with a sick condo Ian usually enjoyed visiting. When he saw the lights of the fancy building at the end of the street, he let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

He went around the side of the building to smoke a cigarette under the fire escape before he went up. The trick would probably complain about the smoke smell in his condo, but Ian’s hands were shaking too hard to go without. He huddled near the fire escape, turning his shoulder in to shelter the flame as he lit his cigarette. He glanced down the stairs to the boiler room, the top step right beside his foot.

The lit cigarette toppled from his hands, falling to the sidewalk as Ian’s eyes registered what he was seeing.

There was a dead body lying down at the foot of the stairs. It was another young girl, this one definitely a little younger than Ian.

Ian felt like he was sinking into the ground. He couldn’t take his eyes away from her. The longer he stared, the more details he noticed. Her blue cotton dress was tangled around her knees, her body contorted at an unnatural angle where she lay jammed in the tiny landing at the bottom of the stairs. She had long black hair that curled wildly across her face, partially covering her wide-open, terrified, flat eyes that Ian could just make out in the shadows on the landing.

Then he saw it: the dead girl didn’t have any feet.

Chapter Text

Mickey was trying not to panic. It was difficult, like what he imagined it must be like if you were hanging out of a helicopter and the pilot yelled, “Don’t look down!” Of course you were going to fucking look down. Likewise, of course he was starting to panic because he hadn’t heard from Ian in twelve hours.

He tried to tell himself this wasn’t that big of a deal. Ian had come home later in the morning a few times before. Just because Mickey had gotten used to coming out of his bedroom in the morning to see Ian’s lanky frame sprawled out on his couch, just because he liked pausing to enjoy the way Ian’s mouth hung open as he slept, just because he was used to keeping quiet as he shuffled around the kitchen making coffee so he wouldn’t wake Ian (even though the fucking kid slept like the dead and probably wouldn’t wake up for anything short of a nuclear attack)—none of that necessarily meant that Mickey should expect Ian to be there the morning after Ian kissed him for the second time.

Sure, Mickey had woken up an hour before his alarm with a stupid loopy smile on his face. And he’d taken a second to run a hand through his hair before walking into the living room, so if by some off-chance Ian was awake he wouldn’t see Mickey looking like a total zombie.

But when he stepped out of his bedroom, he saw he was alone in the apartment.

He checked his phone and didn’t see any messages. It was ten in the morning, maybe Ian was still working. Thinking of Ian spending the night with one of his tricks made Mickey’s mouth feel dry, so he tried not to. He debated sending him a text, but he didn’t want to be too clingy and weird. He wasn’t Ian’s keeper.

Finally he caved. Late night? he typed with his thumb, hitting send before he could think better of it. That was chill enough, right? He’d never thought of himself as uncool, specifically, but he was coming to discover that going a little crazy over someone else did not bring out his inner coolness.

And he didn’t have time to wait around for Ian to show up or respond to the message, because Colin was probably already on his way to pick him up.

They had a big job just outside the city today. They were burying a body in the woods out in a far corner of the Cook County Forest Preserve.

It wasn’t as bad as it sounded, really. The dead guy was an old friend of a friend of Ronnie’s who had committed some kind of life insurance fraud, something complicated that involved faking his own death so his daughter could pay her hospital bills, which was all very heartwarming but now that he was actually dead his family needed "an alternative to a traditional burial", as Ronnie had put it. Perhaps more weird than the job itself was the fact that this was not the first time they’d done a job like this. Not for the first time, Mickey was struck by the oddity of his work with his uncle.

The upshot of all that was that Mickey was stuck helping his brother and two of Ronnie’s other guys dig a grave rather than tracking down Ian's redheaded ass.

He found himself taking an unreasonable amount of breaks from digging to check his phone.

“You got a hot date or something?” Colin asked, stopping to take a breath and lean on the handle of his shovel.

Mickey didn’t spare him a glance, clicking around on his phone to see if there was a way to make sure it was receiving messages properly. He was seconds away from asking Colin to send him a text to test his service.

His Uncle Ronnie, who was supervising the digging from his vantage point sitting casually under a tree nearby, turned his cool gaze onto Mickey.

“That Gallagher kid still staying with you?” he asked.

Colin looked surprised. “Gallagher? Like Fiona Gallagher from the neighborhood?” He smiled. “Man, that girl was a smoking piece of ass.”

Mickey shot him an unamused look then went back to his phone. He sent Ian another message: dude would you just fucking let me know you’re not dead in a ditch somewhere. He tried to not think about how this was his sixth unanswered message. Ian usually responded right away.

“Wait, you’re getting it in with Fiona Gallagher?” Colin asked, still preoccupied by that information.

“Not Fiona, her brother Ian,” Mickey said shortly. He winced as Colin looked ready to leap on the easy in. "And no, I'm not getting anything in, so you can fucking walk that joke back, you asshole." He stuffed his phone in his pocket and went back to digging. He hoped to god they were nearly at six feet by now, jesus christ.

“Was he the redheaded one?” Colin asked. “Or the other one, the one with the mouth?”

“Lip,” Mickey supplied absently. “And no, he’s the redhead.” He stabbed the head of his shovel into ground with a little extra force. When he looked up after working a little more to rub a hand across his sweaty forehead, he saw Ronnie was still watching him.

“Yeah, he’s still staying with me,” Mickey said. Then he muttered under his breath, “Or at least he was.”

Ronnie arched an eyebrow. “Everything okay with you too?”

“Yes,” Mickey grumbled. “If he would fucking answer me back, everything would be fine.”

“You haven’t heard from him?”

“Not since he left for work last night,” Mickey admitted.

Ronnie’s expression didn’t change, but his gaze seemed to sharpen. He didn’t push though, instead declaring that the hole was deep enough, finally.

“Alright boys, let’s get this burial show on the road so we can get out of here. Last thing we want is the Forest Preserve Police or a mall cop or some other chickenshit to show up,” he called out.

The body was wrapped in a sheet, and Colin and one of the other guys lifted it carefully from the trunk of the car. Ronnie stood to direct their progress, scolding them if they moved too roughly.

“Show some goddamn respect,” he bit out.

When they set the body in the ground, Ronnie stood at the edge of the grave and folded his hands in front of him, not in prayer so much as respectful reflection. “Rest in peace,” he said after a moment. Mickey and Colin stood on either side of him, the other two guys watching respectfully as they leaned against their shovels.

Mickey was struck by the sudden solemn silence. It made him think of the dead girl, unsurprisingly. It made him wonder if the police had found her family, if she’d been identified and had a burial of her own. It was a grim thought, the idea that she was just another unidentified body in the morgue, while the guy they were burying today had technically been interned and mourned twice in his life.

It took half the time to replace the dirt on top of the body. As they were loading the shovels back into one of the cars, Ronnie came to stand at Mickey’s elbow. “Your boy doing okay?” he asked quietly.

Mickey was startled by the familiar term, and reared back a little, frowning as he looked at his uncle. He didn’t really know how to respond.

“I don’t know,” he said honestly.

Just then his phone vibrated and he nearly tripped over his own feet in his haste to yank it out of his pocket. It was from Ian.

at 13th district station being booked can you come

“Mickey?” Ronnie was asking. “Mick, what’s wrong?”

Mickey’s mouth was dry, his skin tingling in sudden upset. “Ian was arrested,” he said dazedly. “Shit.” He called out to Colin, “Yo man, you gotta drive me to Humboldt Park.” Colin eased himself up at a snail's pace from where he’d been sitting on the ground, tying his shoes. Mickey snapped. “Move your ass, jesus christ Colin, I swear to god!”

He barely noticed Ronnie grasping his shoulder, glancing at his uncle, feeling wild. He opened his mouth to explain, but Ronnie just shook his head, sighing.

“I’ll go with Bill and Ed,” Ronnie said, nodding at the two guys who had helped dig who were waiting near their parked truck. “Go on ahead with your brother.”

Mickey nodded, too distracted to respond, getting in the car as Colin finally dragged his ass over. But once they were on the road, Mickey found himself actually thanking god for Colin’s driving. If they didn’t crash and die flipped over on a median first, they would probably be there in twenty minutes.

Colin watched him out the corner of his eye, but for once he didn’t seem tempted to pry, and Mickey was even more grateful for that, even though he could tell his brother had a million questions. They pulled up in front of the precinct, Mickey’s mind racing, but as he moved to slide out of the car Colin reached over and grabbed his arm, stopping him. “You armed?”

Mickey gave him a bewildered look. “Um. Of course?”

Colin held his other hand out flat, eyebrows raised expectantly. “Dude, you can’t go into a police station packing heat,” he insisted. He snapped his fingers. “Gun. Give it.”

“Fuck, whatever, just let go of me,” Mickey said impatiently. He pulled out the Glock from where it had slid to the side of his waistband and smacked into Colin’s hand with a little extra force, privately acknowledging that Colin had probably just done him a huge solid. He'd forgotten he'd had the gun on him. His brother nodded and released his arm.

“Give ‘em hell,” Colin called after him, and Mickey flicked him off in friendly farewell. As he jogged up the sidewalk to the 13th Precinct, he felt pumped up enough to fucking tear the whole building apart with his hands and teeth.

He came blazing into the police department like an outlaw kicking into an old-timey saloon.

“Where the hell is he?” he yelled, his voice cutting sharply through the din of other people’s unimportant conversations.

He strode the to front desk, his fingers twitching restlessly at his side, until he was smacking his hand on the plastic covering. “Yo, you,” he said sharply. The clerk at the desk jumped, looking up at him with wide, alarmed eyes. He leaned down so he could shout directly into her face.

“Where the fuck is Ian Gallagher?”

 

****

 

Ian was sitting in a holding cell waiting to be questioned, wondering how many people died in the city of Chicago without anyone caring. He wondered how many other girls had died, brutalized and partially dismembered and ignored while the cops dicked around with dead-end leads like him.

He figured it must be a higher number than two.

The bench was cold against his legs, chilling his skin through his jeans and he wished he’d brought his jacket instead of the dumb holey hoodie he had on. Across the cell was a drunk guy passed out against the wall and two men playing cards in the corner. The couple of times he’d been brought in before it had been much more crowded than this, and he supposed getting hauled in on a Monday had its benefits.

The hours after he found the body the night before and the following early morning were a blur. In the stillness of the holding cell, he could finally begin to piece it together as best he could.

He hadn’t been booked into the cell officially until a few hours ago. Until then he’d been semi-detained next to a bank of desks in the back of the precinct. For a while, he deluded himself into thinking he was just being kept around for witness questioning, so he just sat numbly in his chair, time passing at a startlingly swift speed as he kept reliving the moment when he’d glanced down and seen the girl. He didn’t even take his phone out of his pocket. It was like he was in a fugue state.

But when he saw O’Reilly and Nowak walking toward him as afternoon began to fall, ostensibly at the start of their shifts, Ian’s stomach dropped. He knew then things were not good.

Kicking himself for his naiveté, he sent a quick text message to Mickey before they took his phone and his wallet and put him in a holding cell in back, O’Reilly telling him with a sneer that they had to stop meeting like this, people were starting to talk.

He was surprised by how hollow he felt. He kept wondering whether Mickey was worried about him. Probably. The guy would deny it, but he was a born worrier, and he had most likely taken note that Ian wasn’t on the couch when he woke up that morning (Ian secretly loved the mornings where he was hazily aware of Mickey moving quietly in the kitchen before he left for the day, obviously trying not to disturb Ian, and he wished he was passed out on that uncomfortable couch now). Ian hoped he wasn’t too pissed off at him.

The image of the stumps at the end of the second dead girl’s ankles kept rising in Ian’s mind. Somehow, it seemed more gruesome than even the severed wrists of the first girl had been. It made Ian’s own ankles throb in some kind of phantom sympathy pain. Whereas before he couldn’t get the first girl’s eyes out of his mind, this time he couldn’t help obsessively hoping that when whoever was doing this had cut off her feet, she was already dead. It made him slightly sick to contemplate.

It was partially why he’d called the police without hesitation, without stopping to think whether he should be more cautious or consult Mickey first. He didn’t even bother to call it in anonymously, giving his name and number and waiting until the police arrived. The sight of the girl wedged into the space at the bottom of the stairs made Ian feel frantic to make sure someone came and got her, that she wouldn’t have to wait forgotten in the dark. He watched over her until he saw the flashing lights converging on where he stood.

He wasn’t surprised when the cops started hassling him. He wasn’t entirely sure how he’d ended up in the 13th District holding cell, considering Michigan Avenue light-years away from the district he was being held in now, but it felt like a reasonably bullshit sequence of events for his life right now, so he wasn’t necessarily surprised by that either.

He distracted himself by thinking about Mickey, and their kiss from the day before. He was still embarrassed by his increasing inability to fucking maintain when he was around Mickey, but he kept reminding himself of the sweet, hesitant way Mickey had kissed him on the cheek afterward. Like he was trying to reassure Ian. It made his heart hurt a little to think of it.

The loud clacking of the deadbolt sliding free of the cell door disrupted his thoughts.

A bored-looking cop looked at his clipboard. “Gallagher?”

Ian stood up. “Am I free to go?”

The cop snorted, like that was a hilarious thing to say, gesturing with the clipboard for Ian to approach, which Ian did, feeling dread prickle at a point on the back of his neck. He held out a set of handcuffs and waited for Ian to hold out his wrists.

He hesitated. If he was being put in handcuffs, things were maybe more serious than even he realized. “Really?”

The cop just gave him a tired look and slapped the cuff on his other hand. “Let’s go, down the hall,” he said. Ian tried to ask him where he was being taken, but the cop ignored him. Ian had a pretty good idea anyway.

He was let into the windowless room at the end of the hall, O’Reilly and Nowak already inside. Nowak was shuffling through a stack of papers and didn’t look up as Ian stepped inside, the door shutting behind him. O’Reilly was grinning, and he would've appeared almost friendly if Ian didn’t already know he was an asshole.

“Have a seat,” he said, gesturing at a plastic chair.

Ian sat down warily, his hands held awkwardly in his lap with the handcuffs. He had a feeling it was some kind of psychological game with the handcuffs, but it was kind of a useless effort in his opinion. He was already scared as hell.

“Let's cut through all the bullshit, Gallagher. You want to tell us what's really going on?” O’Reilly said. He stood over Ian, his height forcing Ian to crane his neck back to see him properly. “Why are you always around when we find dead girls?”

It was more or less what Ian had expected, but hearing the veiled accusation out loud from an armed cop was still a shock.

“Why would I call 911 if I had done anything?” he asked before he could catch himself.

He heard Lip’s voice in his head: don’t say dick to cops, unless it’s to ask if you’re under arrest, if you’re free to go or to say you’re going to remain silent.

“Two bodies in what, less than three weeks?” O’Reilly continued like Ian hadn’t spoken, counting off the days on his fingers. “Hate to see what you’d get up to in a whole month, Gallagher.”

He just focused on keeping his goddamn mouth shut. It became a babbling refrain in his head. Shut the fuck up, shut the fuck up, shut the fuck up. Legally, he knew he didn’t have to say anything. Logically, it was practically impossible to keep from screaming at O’Reilly’s stupid smug expression or Nowak’s doughy, useless face.

“Not that any of that means anything,” Nowak said, his tone conciliatory as he looked up from his stack of papers. “It’s just a little suspicious.”

“What is this, good-cop, bad-cop? Because you guys are really bad at it,” Ian said irritably before he could stop himself, then he clamped his mouth shut again, teeth grinding at the effort.

Even if he wasn’t under arrest, they could hold him for twenty-four hours at least. He’d known girls who got trapped in lock-up over an entire weekend because a cop had decided to fuck with their processing.

There was a knock at the door to the windowless room. O’Reilly rolled his eyes, jerking his head at Nowak to go and answer it.

Ian was taken aback at the swell of something that felt like abject relief that swept through him when he saw Detective Johnson step into the room. He’d never felt anything less than nervous at the sight of a cop before.

“I heard you were questioning a suspect on my Jane Doe case in here,” she said. She sounded pissed off, the unspoken without my permission clear as day. Her eyes settled on Ian. “Ian,” was all she said. Her eyes narrowed almost immediately as she turned to O’Reilly.

“This is the suspect you brought in?” she asked. Her voice felt deceptively neutral to Ian’s ears, and once again he reminded himself to shut the hell up, even though the word “suspect” made his heart start to pound nervously.

“He found the Jane Doe over near Michigan Avenue,” Nowak explained.

She glanced at Ian, who was watching the exchange a little wide-eyed, then looked between the other cops again, nonplussed. “So what is he doing here in interrogation? Didn’t you get a statement at the scene?”

“He was going to meet a john,” O’Reilly said, his voice confident and easy. “We picked him up for solicitation, and given the circumstances, we thought it was wise to bring him in for questioning in connection with the murder.”

Johnson raised a sharp eyebrow. “Huh. Solicitation.” She tilted her head to the side in question. “Did you bring the john in too?”

“Not yet,” O’Reilly said evasively.

Ian snorted at the absurdity, the very idea of that fucking asshole cop going out of his way to arrest a trick, not the hooker. “Yeah, I bet you’re getting right on that,” he said.

O’Reilly turned on him, but Johnson beat him to it. “Cool it,” she told Ian.

“So you’re telling me,” she said evenly to O’Reilly and Nowak, “that you brought in an underage kid without looking into whether the alleged john involved could be implicated in possible exploitation and trafficking—”

Ian sat up straighter in protest, because seriously. “Trafficking, come on now—”

Johnson spoke over him. “And then you held him for questioning without a legal guardian or advocate present?”

Another cop may have backed down, and indeed Nowak was looking away guiltily, but if there was one thing Ian had come to know about O’Reilly in the year the cop had been harassing him, it was his unrelenting willingness to bluster and bully to get his way. Not one to disappoint, O’Reilly crossed his arms defiantly. He threw his shoulders back, like he was trying to draw attention to how he essentially loomed over Johnson as he glared at her.

"What are you, his lawyer?” he asked.

Johnson went black in the eye. Even Ian felt a chill. “No, what I am is in charge of this investigation, as well as someone with a vested interest in upholding the law. As should you, I might add.”

Might want to apply some ointment to that burn, Ian crowed silently.

O’Reilly didn’t look cowed, but he shut his mouth, a muscle working visibly in his jaw. Johnson stared him down for another minute, O’Reilly stubbornly holding her gaze. Finally, she sighed

''Is he free to go?” she asked, nodding in Ian’s direction. Nowak hemmed and hawed about procedure, paperwork that was processing, but Johnson shook her head. “As the lead investigator on the Jane Doe case, I have no further questions for him. So do you want to pursue a solicitation charge, or are you done unlawfully detaining a minor for the night?”

O’Reilly smiled grimly. “I suppose not. Wouldn’t want to do anything unlawful, would we?” He pulled out his heavy key ring and searched for the one for Ian’s cuffs as Johnson badgered Nowak for details on Ian’s arrest and whether any paperwork had been filed.

O’Reilly leaned a hip against the table, gesturing, and Ian held out his wrists warily. “Seems like you’ve just got admirers all over the place lately,” he said under his breath to Ian as he bent to remove the handcuffs.

Ian startled, looking at the cop sharply at the word “admirers”. He glanced up at Johnson, but she was still preoccupied with Nowak. When he looked back, O’Reilly was just smirking as Ian rubbed at his wrists.

Finished berating Nowak, Johnson turned to Ian. “Let’s go, Ian. I’ll get you signed out,” she said briskly, walking out of the windowless room, leaving Ian to follow.

Ian didn’t like the look in O’Reilly’s eyes as Johnson turned away, like O’Reilly was imagining every possible way he could annihilate the other cop if he had the chance. He couldn’t help but feel nervous for her even as he jogged a little to catch up.

“Thanks for springing me,” he said. Johnson glanced at him, her expression unreadable.

“It wasn’t me,” she told him, then nodded at something in front of her as they entered the main part of the building where most of the desks were.

Tony was standing by the coffee machine, facing them. He gave a sheepish wave when he saw Ian looking.

”Let’s get you out of here,” he said. He sounded embarrassed, shoulders tense as he came to stand beside Ian.

“I don’t want to see you around here again,” Johnson told Ian sternly.

Ian could only shrug. It wasn’t like he came around the precinct for kicks. She raised both eyebrows meaningfully, then turned and left.

“Ready to go?” Tony asked Ian. He seemed to be waiting for Ian to follow him.

”More than you know,” Ian said, with feeling, and turned to follow Tony down a hallway toward the main entrance.

He heard the loud shouting before he could really see the commotion with his own eyes.

“Fucking use your goddamn eyes and tell me when Ian Gallagher was brought in, the computer is right in front of you, jesus christ!”

Ian never thought he’d find such a loud, harsh voice so immediately soothing.

An aggrieved woman’s voice attempted to intervene. “Sir, if you would just calm down, it would be easier for me to process your request—”

You fucking calm down, I just want you to do your fucking job and tell me if Ian Gallagher is in holding.”

“Sir, I can’t release that information—”

“Look, you want me to fucking spell it for you? I-A-N, G-A-L-L-A-G-E-R, just type it in and tell me what it says.”

Ian stepped around the side of the desk. “It’s actually spelled g-h-e-r.”

Mickey spun around at Ian’s voice, his mouth going slack. “Ian.”

Ian smiled weakly, the sudden relief of no longer being in a cell or interrogated in a room, and instead standing looking down at Mickey’s flushed, frustrated, familiar face, hitting him all at once. It was so sharp it made his eyes water.

Mickey swallowed, stepping forward like he couldn’t help himself. “You okay, man?” he asked roughly.

Ian could only nod. His throat felt thick and gummy. They stood looking at each other like they were be-spelled.

Tony interrupted their staring contest with a sound of annoyance as he flipped through a file on the desk. His eyes were narrowed at what he read. “That’s professional,” he said sarcastically. “Looks like there’s not official arrest record, so there’s nothing for you to sign.” He reached under the desk to rifle through a bin and handed Ian a plastic bag of his personal effects. “You’re free to go, I guess. I’m sorry about all this.”

“Not your fault, Tony,” Ian said. Tony looked pained, so Ian reached out and patted him on the shoulder.

Tony still seemed troubled. “You can just ask for me next time, you know,” he said, then flushed a little. “I mean, not that there will be a next time, you’re not a criminal. Just, you don’t have to deal with this stuff alone, you know?”

“Nah, man, I wouldn’t want to put you out,” he protested, frowning, but Tony shook his head firmly.

“I’m serious, Ian,” he said. “Fiona would have my ass if she heard I wasn’t looking out for you.” Ian was about to protest that Fiona probably wouldn’t lose any sleep about it these days, even if it made him feel small and mean to have the thought, but Tony seemed to sense his hesitance and fixed him with an intense stare, more piercing than any expression Ian could remember seeing on the puppyish face before. “I’m serious, Ian. Promise me.”

Ian sighed, and eventually nodded, even though he had no intention of calling in such a favor. It wasn't that he didn’t appreciate the gesture. He just hated that he was so in need of everyone’s help these days.

Beside him, Mickey was twitching impatiently. “We done here?” he asked Tony sharply. “Don’t you got a donut shop to go investigate, or an unarmed black kid to shoot somewhere?” He reached out and put a hand on Ian’s elbow, pulling slightly to back them both away. Ian rolled his eyes at Mickey, but it was half-hearted. He was so glad to see him, he had trouble working up any real irritation.

Tony still had that penetrating look on his face, leveling it on Mickey this time.
“Watch it, Milkovich,” he said softly.

“Yeah, okay, pal,” Mickey said dismissively. “To protect and serve right?” He turned his back on Tony, tugging Ian to follow.

Ian have one last smile to Tony as he took a couple backwards steps after Mickey. “Thanks, Tony,” he said. Then he turned around and followed Mickey out of the station.

When they were on the sidewalk, Mickey waited until they got to the corner to stop and shove Ian hard in the shoulder. “What the hell, man?” His eyes were bright with fury. “Why in the fuck am I always finding you in that goddamn police station? Why didn’t you call me? What the hell happened?”

Ian felt suddenly exhausted. He wanted to go sleep on the couch for a week and a half. Instead, looking at Mickey’s tense, worried face, he knew he had to give some kind of explanation.

“I found another body,” he said. “It was outside the condo of one of my tricks last night.” He stopped to take a breath. “She didn’t have any feet, Mickey.”

Mickey sucked in air past his teeth. He seemed at a loss for words.

“So I called 911 because I couldn’t think, I couldn’t just leave her there, and I waited until the cops showed. But they must’ve recognized me from last time or something, because then they brought me in, and the next thing I knew they were putting me in holding.” He sighed. “I should’ve texted you earlier. I didn’t see your messages. Everything was just…spinning. I barely remember anything.”

“Shit, man,” Mickey said after a minute. He reached out tentatively and pressed his hand to Ian’s shoulder. “You okay?”

Ian actually snorted at the question. He was the furthest from okay he had ever been in his life. “Can we just go home?” he asked Mickey instead of answering.

Mickey’s mouth was pursed, but he seemed to decide to give it a rest for now. “Yeah, let’s go home.”

 

****

 

Ian was quiet, and it was freaking Mickey out. He’d grown so used to Ian’s idle chatter, the way his dumb, cheerful voice filled the apartment, that sitting beside him on the couch while the redhead stared numbly at nothing made the silence feel deafening.

“You hungry?” Mickey asked for the third time since they’d gotten home.

Ian shook his head again. Mickey tried not to stare too hard, but it was tough. Ian’s face was so blank, like his thoughts were a thousand miles away.

He hadn’t been too big on the details of what had happened the night before, but Mickey understood the gist, and he couldn’t exactly blame the kid for being a little shell-shocked. Just the thought of stumbling upon another body, another dead girl missing extremities, was enough to make Mickey’s stomach clench. Then getting dragged into the police station like he was the fucking criminal, not whatever lunatic was doing this, must’ve been like a waking nightmare.

“Detective Johnson was at the police department today,” Ian said. He surprised Mickey when he spoke, even though his voice still had that flat quality Mickey hated.

“Oh yeah?”

“She was about to question me as a suspect, before she saw who I was.”

Mickey didn’t know what to make of the detective’s apparent concern over Ian. He understood it, sure; he challenged anyone with two eyes and a heart to look at Gallagher’s dumb wide green eyes and his soft, vulnerable smile and not let themselves get personally invested in his protection. It was like some kind of superpower Ian had, unintentionally activating the protective instincts of others. Even Ronnie had seemed concerned when Mickey had mentioned him earlier. That doofus cop Tony had practically fallen all over himself to get Ian to promise he’d ask for him if he was arrested again.

And then there was Mickey, who was practically vibrating with the need to wrap his arms and legs around Ian like a spider monkey and keep him safe in the apartment forever.

“I think that means they’re connecting this girl’s murder to the first girl over by Pulaski,” Ian was saying.

“I mean, I fucking hope they’re connected,” Mickey said. Ian frowned slightly at this, still staring ahead, and Mickey tried to explain. “Jesus, if they’re not, that means there’s more than one psychopath out there chopping up underage girls.” Ian winced at Mickey’s words, and Mickey felt immediately contrite. He hadn’t been the one to see the dead girl this time, after all. He was sure Ian was going over and over the image in his mind. “Sorry. You know what I mean.”

“At least there’s one goddamn cop who doesn’t seem to have their head up their ass,” Mickey offered.

Ian made a flapping gesture with one hand, then let it drop to his lap again. “She’s just one cop, though, you know? O’Reilly already thinks I have something to do with it. Who knows, they could be putting together a warrant right now.”

Mickey didn’t know what to say to that at first, the thought of Ian getting hauled in again making his hands clench. “You could always call in that favor with Tony, ask him to see what the word is,” he suggested. Ian made a non-committal noise but didn’t reply.

His phone chirped in the silence of the room. Ian pulled it out of his pocket, staring a little blankly at the screen after he flipped it open. “It’s Svetlana,” he said. Mickey tensed at the name but said nothing. “She thinks she knows the name of the first girl.” He paused, his mouth turning down. “Harriet Bell.” Ian made an absent noise in the back of his throat. “That’s an old-fashioned name. Harriet.” He said the name like he was tasting it.

Mickey didn’t comment on the hollowness of Ian’s voice, the guilt he heard. He could ask how the hell Svetlana figured out the girl's name later, too.

The phone chirped again. Ian sighed. “I have work in a little bit.”

Mickey was shaking his head before all the words were even out of Ian’s mouth. “No you don’t, Ian. Not tonight.”

Ian actually turned to face him at that. “I have to, though,” he said, but he sounded hesitant. Like he was waiting for permission to blow off whatever weird old queen he was supposed to be seeing tonight. Which Mickey was more than happy to grant.

Mickey reached out and took the phone from his hands. Ian didn’t resist. Choosing his words carefully, Mickey kept his face neutral as he spoke. “I don’t want to tell you your business, but I think that after the night and day you’ve had, no jury in the world would convict if you decided to take a personal day.”

Ian opened his mouth, then closed it. He sighed. “Fine,” he said. He held his hand out for the phone. “Let me text back and cancel.” Mickey relinquished the phone and watched as Ian typed out a quick message, turned it off, then stuffed the phone back in his pocket.

They both fell silent, Mickey watching Ian, Ian watching the middle distance.

After a while, Ian shifted over on the couch, his head falling softly against the arm of the couch. His eyes were still open, but his face was lined with tension and exhaustion.

“You want to just crash, dude?” Mickey asked. Ian shrugged one shoulder, and Mickey took that as his cue. He reached over and wrapped an arm around Ian’s waist, hoisting him up off the couch. “Come on, you can sleep on an actual mattress. I’ll sleep out here tonight.”

He started towing Ian toward the bedroom, Ian letting himself be guided even as he tried to argue.

“I think I can sleep on my own shitty couch for one night,” Mickey said over Ian’s weak protests. In Mickey’s bedroom, Ian stood uncertainly beside Mickey’s mattress. Mickey nudged him gently with his hip and Ian took the hint, collapsing forward until he was curled up on one side. He looked impossibly young and fragile lying there.

Mickey made himself turn away and pull down the shades to shut out the early-evening sunlight.

“Sleep tight, buddy,” he said, figuring even though it was barely seven that the kid was probably beat to hell as he turned to leave the room, but Ian’s voice stopped him,

“Mickey?”

Mickey turned on a dime. “What’s up?”

Ian didn’t shift from his position curled facing the wall, but he began twisting the edge of the sheet around his fingers tensely. “You think you could maybe stay with me for a minute?” His voice was so quiet Mickey thought maybe he misunderstood, but as the silence stretched on, he knew he’d heard right.

He hesitated for the barest moment, but he could see the shape of Ian’s vertebrate pressed against the thin material of his t-shirt and his feet were twisted together at the ankle and his long, narrow fingers were twisting the sheet tighter and tighter around his left hand, and Mickey was fucking powerless to resist. He was already pulling his shirt off over his head, knees on the mattress, before he remembered to say, “Sure.”

That didn’t mean he really knew what he was supposed to do. At first, he lay flat on his back, one arm bent behind his head and the other flat alongside Ian’s curved back, not quite touching him.

He heard Ian let out a wavering sigh.

“This really fucking sucks, man,” Ian said quietly.

Mickey didn’t know if he meant what had happened today, or everything in general, but either way, he agreed.

“I know it does, Ian.” It was all he could think to say.

Ian turned over slowly so he was curled facing Mickey. Mickey found himself twisting his body so he was facing Ian more fully too. He waited as Ian twisted at a new corner of the sheet, eyes focused on Mickey’s collarbone. Finally, he looked Mickey in the eye.

“I think the killer’s been calling me.”

Mickey felt his eyes go wide with shock. “What the fuck?”

Instinctively, Mickey reached an arm out and wrapped it around Ian’s shoulder, pulling him slightly nearer. Ian inched even closer, pressing his forehead against the center of Mickey’s chest. He exhaled shakily.

Mickey wanted to go out and tear apart whoever was scaring Ian until they were nothing but bloody scraps on the floor, but since he couldn’t, he wanted to show Ian, somehow, that he was at least safe here, in Mickey’s apartment.

Although Ian was usually the taller one, Mickey rearranged his limbs so he was higher on the bed than Ian and could cradle him as closely as he could, like he could somehow protect Ian by wrapping him in the warmth of his own body.

“Hey, Mick,” Ian asked, his voice muffled.

Mickey hooked his chin over Ian’s head, his soft hair tickling Mickey’s chin. He responded with a soft, “Hm?”

“I know we talked about this before, and I don’t want to rush you into anything…” Ian trailed off, legs moving restlessly so they knocked against Mickey’s knees a little.

“Yeah?” Mickey prompted.

Ian pulled back a little so he could look Mickey in the face. His cheeks were flushed. “Could you…I mean, maybe could we, just.” He licked his lips, Mickey’s eyes darting to catch the movement.

Mickey found himself remembering Ian’s words from a few weeks ago, that sometimes he liked to be touched when he was hurting. Ian was staring at him now, his eyes moving quickly as they scanned Mickey’s face. For once, Ian seemed at a loss for words, Mickey thought, a little smugly maybe.

“What, you want to make out like a couple of teenagers?” Mickey asked softly. He smirked a little, but his heart was starting to pound against his ribcage.

Ian cracked a smile, and the sight made Mickey’s heart beat even harder.

“Only if you want to,” Ian said, just as softly.

It took Mickey a split second to consider, but once he did, the choice was clear. He raised both eyebrows solemnly. “I consent to your advances,” he said, giving Ian a significant look. “Consent is so important, you know.”

This time Ian even laughed, giving Mickey a gentle shove as he snorted, making Mickey feel like the Champion of Emotional Comfort for a brief triumphant moment, before he remembered that he didn’t actually know how to make out and he was suddenly incredibly nervous. He bit his lip, and Ian’s eyes jumped to watch the movement.

Slowly, like he expected Mickey to bolt, Ian brought his hand around to cup the back of Mickey’s neck, pressing his warm palm against Mickey’s skin in a way that made his whole body go loose.

Still moving slowly, Ian pressed closer, looking back and forth from Mickey’s mouth to his eyes. Mickey could feel Ian’s breath on his lips, the heat of his chest and belly pressing closer to his. When Ian’s mouth was only a whisper away, Ian froze, hesitating.

In the end it was Mickey who moved forward the last crucial quarter of an inch, an impatient groan escaping his lips before he pressed his mouth firmly to Ian’s. Their noses bumped together at first. Mickey didn’t know what to do with his hands, letting one flutter over Ian’s shoulder and the other lay curled against the pillow above his head.

Ian made a sound in the back of his throat and increased the pressure, tilting his head so their mouths fit better together. He pulled gently at Mickey’s bottom lip, then moved up to suck softly on the bow of his top lip.

Mickey felt clumsy and he wasn’t sure how to kiss back exactly, so he let Ian take the lead at first, surprised by how softly Ian was kissing him, wondering why he wasn’t using any tongue, but Ian didn’t seem to be in any hurry. He kept pressing closed-mouth kisses against Mickey’s lips, adjusting the pressure and the angle until Mickey was kissing back more urgently, thinking he was ready to get this show on the road already, jesus, he couldn’t take this slow, unhurried, teasing tempo anymore.

He was so fixated on getting Ian to press more firmly against him that Mickey gasped when Ian swept his tongue across the seam of his lips once, then twice, taking advantage of Mickey’s surprise to taste inside his mouth. Mickey was less conscious of his own performance now, letting his tongue tangle with Ian’s instinctively, eager to press inside Ian’s mouth and get a taste of his own.

Ian dragged his mouth to the corner of Mickey’s lips as Mickey tried to chase the contact, but Ian chuckled a little breathlessly and pressed soft kisses down his jaw, his light stubble scratching deliciously at Mickey’s skin. He dragged his mouth down Mickey’s throat, inhaling deeply like he couldn’t get enough of how Mickey smelled. He paused in the hollow at the base of his throat, licking and sucking at the same patch of skin where Mickey hazily realized he would soon have his first hickey.

Mickey couldn’t stop making little sounds, tiny whimpers that left his open mouth without his permission. His hands came up to cradle Ian’s head, and as much as he loved what he was doing to Mickey’s neck, he wanted his mouth again, so he tugged until Ian came back up, wrapping his long arms around Mickey’s body so they crossed at the small of Mickey’s back, resuming kissing until Mickey’s lips felt raw.

He noticed that he was hard, harder than he could ever remember being, and he was absently surprised that he wasn’t freaked out at the realization. He felt comfortable in his body, absorbed in the moment, too distracted by what Ian was doing to him to remember anything terrible or ugly that had ever happened to him before.

Mickey lost track of time as they kissed. He felt like he could kiss Ian for the rest of his life.

Before, he’d always been deeply skeptical of kissing. It looked messy and lame, and like nothing more then a quick prelude to fucking (which made it seem somewhat pointless for a long time, since fucking was still something he was deeply terrified of), but as Ian rolled so Mickey was sprawled on top of him, running his fingers through Mickey’s hair while keeping their mouths surging together again and again, Mickey felt like an idiot. He could have been kissing Ian like this every day since he’d moved into his apartment.

It was Ian that finally pulled back, twisting them so they were both on their sides facing one another again, panting into the damp air caught between their faces. Mickey couldn’t catch his breath, his fingers flexing where they were gripped around Ian’s upper arm.

“What—” he tried, but Ian pressed another short, soft kiss to his lips, swallowing the words.

“I don’t want to push too far tonight,” Ian whispered. His voice sounded a little hoarse. He looked flushed and just as breathless as Mickey, but Mickey still felt a little indignant.

“I’m not some delicate flower here, man,” he protested, trying for glib but sounding breathless and needy instead.

Ian chuckled a little, leaning forward so his forehead pressed against Mickey’s. “I know you’re not, Mick,” he said. He bumped his nose against Mickey’s in a way Mickey knew he should object to, but he still felt too fuzzy from making out to swat him away. “We’ve got time, though.”

The words struck Mickey a little dumb. They made something big and unnamable in his chest swell almost painfully. While he struggled to catch his breath, Ian flopped to his other side so his back was pressed to Mickey’s front. After a minute, he reached back to grab Mickey’s arm and drag it around to press to his chest.

Carefully, feeling shaky like a newborn colt, Mickey relaxed behind him. He moved so he was staring at the back of Ian’s head, his hair bright and shiny even in the shadows of the darkened room.

He knew the exact moment Ian drifted off, his body going heavy and relaxed in Mickey’s arm. It took Mickey a lot longer to fall asleep as he lay staring at the back of Ian’s head in the dark, lost in thought.

Chapter Text

Ian woke up in stages, gradually becoming aware that he was being aggressively spooned.

He glanced down at his chest, at where his hand was cradled near his shoulder by someone else’s hand clasped firmly over his wrist. It took him a split second to remember where he was, and when he did he swallowed the chuckle that rose in his chest, not wanting to wake Mickey, who was still snoring lightly in his ear like a baby bear. He studied the hand holding his wrist, the fingers slightly smaller than his own, the F U C K tattooed carefully on each knuckle, a little mesmerized at how firmly Mickey was holding him, one arm wrapped around his chest and a leg thrown over Ian’s hips below the covers like he was afraid Ian would try and escape.

He wondered if it was always the tough guys who turned out to be the biggest snugglers.

But then, it had been a while since Ian had cuddled or snuggled or whatever with another person. Which was odd to admit, considering how much sex he objectively was having. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d woken up with someone wrapped around him.

He twisted a little so he could look over his shoulder at Mickey’s face. There was a brief moment when he thought about the night before, making out, running it through frame by frame, and he felt guilty, wondering if he had pushed Mickey too far. Then he decided that he was just going to have to trust Mickey on this one, and trust himself to fucking listen if Mickey told him to back the fuck off. He could do that, he told himself. He just had to try not to be a pushy asshole.

Mickey’s face was twitching in sleep, his legs jerking lightly under the covers. He let out quiet mumbles and moans every once and a while. It was hard to tell what kind of dream he was having; he was frowning slightly.

It was tempting to stay cuddled in bed, but Ian also needed to piss like a race horse, so he gently unwound himself and got up.

He was still in his jeans but sometime during the night he must have taken his shirt and socks off. After he kicked the toilet seat back down (it was just him and Mickey in the apartment but Fiona had fucking drilled it into him and Lip and Carl that you put the toilet seat back down when you were done because we’re not fucking animals, you guys, jesus), he brushed his teeth and studied his face in the mirror. He looked exhausted. There were dark circles under his eyes and he was pale, paler than usual.

He spat out toothpaste and leaned back against the door of the bathroom, sighing. He saw the frozen, suspended violence of the images in his head. He felt resigned as he finally admitted the truth: he might be in really over his head.

Checking to make sure Mickey was still passed out (he was, it was barely six in the morning), Ian closed the bedroom door and went to curl up in the corner of the couch, legs crossed like a pretzel in a way Lip always gave him a hard time about. How in god’s name can that possibly be comfortable, man?.

He flipped open his phone and scrolled to Svetlana’s text message from the day before. He hadn’t called or responded to one of her messages in weeks, but she’d still taken the time to ask around and get him a name. Harriet Bell. He wondered how many people she’d had to call and threaten to get that name for him, all while Ian maintained radio silence.

He felt like the world’s worst friend, especially since the main reason he was calling her now was because he desperately needed the comfort of her flat, irritated voice to bat away how unreal everything felt.

The phone rang only once before Svetlana picked up. There was a long pause before she spoke. “You read my message, yes.”

Ian swallowed. He couldn’t deny the whoosh of relief that went through him at the comfort of talking with her. “I did. Thank you for getting the name for me.” He scratched at his eyebrow idly. “Hi, by the way.”

She snorted. “Hello to you, too. By the way.”

Ian considered apologizing for icing her out, but he didn’t want to lie. He was still having trouble reconciling the Svetlana he knew with the Svetlana who could’ve hurt Mickey so badly.

“I’ve been staying with Mickey,” he said instead.

Svetlana made a neutral noise. “I am not surprised.”

There was the briefest moment of deliberation before he decided to take the plunge.

“So things have really started to spiral,” he said softly. He chuckled weakly at the understatement.

There was a silence, and Svetlana made a soft noise. “Ian, tell me what is wrong.”

“I don’t think I should tell you over the phone,” he hedged. He could already anticipate her panic and figured it would be worse if she couldn’t confirm he was okay face to face. “Can I come over?” Plus it would give him time to talk more about Harriet Bell, and see what other details Svetlana may have gleaned.

“Of course you can come over,” she said, like that was a stupid question. She sounded more vulnerable than he’d heard her in a long time. “You are always welcome.”

Ian blamed the trauma of yesterday and the night before, but his eyes felt damp. “I’ll see you this afternoon,” he said hoarsely.

Before he went to wake Mickey and tell him about his plans to visit Svetlana, Ian took the time to pull out the computer from under the couch and do some light internet scouring. He wished Lip was there to help. He was always way better at manipulating search engines than Ian was. Times being what they were, Ian waited for the laptop to boot up and pulled up Google, letting his fingers drag lightly over the keys as he considered what to search.

Like a dim spark, a term bounced across his mind. Jane Doe. O’Reilly and Johnson had kicked that word around the day before. Ian hadn’t thought to search for it before, assuming that if he didn’t know the first girl’s name or further details about her death he’d be grasping at straws, but maybe not.

Starting with the most recent girl, he typed in “Jane Doe” and “murder” and “Michigan Avenue”. He clicked the first result that wasn’t behind a pay wall. It was an article in the Chicago Sun Times.

Unidentified female victim found in stairwell, police suspect homicide

Well, at least there was something. He figured it must be because of the neighborhood. Rich people probably hated it when people got murdered in their backyard.

The article was short, no longer than two hundred words. Estimated age of victim at eighteen to twenty, no ID or identifying marks that matched records on hand, police still looking for family members to claim the body. Coroner suspected homicide. No mention of feet, or lack thereof, or of connections to any other murders.

He tried the same trick for the first girl, Harriet Bell, trying “Jane Doe” and “Humboldt Park”. He found nothing. He searched Harriet Bell with “murder”, with “Humboldt Park”, with “homicide”, with “unidentified female victim”, with “fucking give me something here”, and found nothing.

He went through Facebook and MySpace, and there were hundreds of Harriets in Illinois, and just a quick perusal made him realize that he might not be able to recognize the dead girl’s face if he saw her in a profile picture anyway, which was disheartening. He went through Craigslist, looking through the posts that popped up about missing girls occasionally. He checked the forums where he usually found tricks, the chats where other hookers talked about bad dates and guys other hookers should watch out for. He didn’t see anything that would match Harriet Bell.

Going for broke, he searched the WhitePages website. There were thirty Harriet Bells in Illinois, eighteen in Chicago. A lot of the women were listed as Hattie rather than Harriet, which made Ian’s heart twist a little. It was such a sweet, old-fashioned name.

He was a little dismayed at the vast number of hits, assuming he was sunk, but then he noticed that nearly every Harriet Bell in the state was over sixty years old. Only a handful were under thirty, and only three were close to eighteen like the newspaper had said the victim was. The young Harriet Bells were in Chicago, Downers Grove and Waukegan. He tried searching Harriet Bell and the three locations, looking for high school records or sports pictures. He found only one grainy newspaper photo of lacrosse captain Harriet Bell during a championship game in Waukegan, and she was beautiful, young and black. Ian was having trouble recalling the first girl specifically, but her pale, bruised skin stuck out in his mind like a beacon. So she wasn’t Waukegan Harriet, at least.

He sat back with a sigh. Two possible phone numbers, and a zillion hits on Facebook. Well, it was a start, he supposed. He wrote down the listed phone numbers for Downers Grove Harriet and Chicago Harriet. He cleared the browser history and got up to make coffee, frowning as it brewed. It wasn't a lot, but it was still more information than he’d been able to dredge up in weeks and now he was a little overwhelmed by what he should do with it.

Holding a mug in each hand, he bumped the door to the bedroom open with a hip and eased inside. He set his coffee on the floor and sat down on the bed beside Mickey.

“Hey,” he said softly, nudging Mickey gently on the shoulder with his elbow.

Mickey’s fists shot out spastically, not connecting with Ian’s shoulder hard enough to hurt, but enough to make him jerk and splash scalding coffee over both of them.

“Shit,” Ian hissed, pulling back to set the coffee on the floor next to the other mug as Mickey recoiled with a grunting sound, coming fully awake.

“What the hell, Gallagher,” he said groggily, rubbing at his forearm where the coffee had gotten him.

Ian sucked the coffee off the side of his hand, the skin already red. “You are one tightly-wound sleeper, man,” Ian told him.

Mickey rubbed the bridge of his nose, squeezing his eyes shut. “So, did you need me for something else, or did you just come in here to spill coffee all over me?”

Ian couldn’t help but smile a little. “Well, mostly the coffee.” Mickey rolled his eyes, but he was smiling too. He glanced at Ian, his eyes darting away almost shyly. “But since I’m in here, I might as well tell you I was going to head to Svetlana’s later.”

The smile fell from Mickey’s face immediately, but he didn’t say a word.

“You don’t have to see her or anything,” Ian hastened to add, “or even come with, if you don’t want. I just thought I’d let you know. I need to talk to her about Harriet Bell.” Ian couldn’t really explain why, but it was a gigantic relief to have a name to call the first girl, rather than just The Dead Girl.

Mickey sat up in bed, resting his elbows on his knees, deliberating as he stared at his hands. “I’ll walk you there and wait outside,” he said finally.

Ian tried not to exhale too loudly, but it was tough. “Thanks,” he said quietly.

He’d hoped Mickey would come with. He would never force him to interact with Svetlana, and usually he balked at neediness from anyone he was involved with (If that’s they were doing. What were they doing here, exactly?), but right now the thought of wandering around alone made him feel particularly spooked. He had a feeling he was going to be a little clingy for the next few days.

For his part, Mickey made a disgruntled snorting noise and hauled himself out of bed, grabbing the half-spilled mug from the ground and stumbling into the living room to throw himself on the couch. Ian heard him yawn loudly, flipping on the TV. Ian followed, balancing his coffee on his knee as he sat.

Changing to a half-over episode of Jeopardy (How was he always finding Jeopardy, Ian wanted to know. When had Channel 6 become 24-hour Jeopardy? If he wasn’t careful, he’d start absorbing piles of useless trivia like Mickey and spouting it off like a nerd too.), Mickey glanced at him. “How’re you doing?” he asked, taking a sip of his coffee with one hand and pulling absently on his sleep-ruffled hair with the other. He seemed anxious, watching Ian like he expected him to fly apart.

Which, as a concern, wasn’t too off-base, Ian figured. He felt edgy as hell and it was probably written all over his face. “Well, you know,” Ian said, waving a hand in a weak gesture.

Mickey raised his eyebrows, unimpressed, waiting for a real answer.

Ian couldn’t help but give Mickey a tired smile. “Fucking traumatized, basically.” He let out a humorless huff of a laugh to try and offset the accidental brutal honesty.

Mickey twisted so he was facing him more squarely on the couch, the movement bringing him close enough that his knee was pressed to Ian’ thigh, frowning as he studied Ian’s face. “What did you mean when you said you think the killer’s been calling you, man?” he asked.

Ian looked down at the coffee mug in his hand. He hated feeling like he was piling on. He couldn’t just find a dead body, it had to be two dead bodies, it had to be two dead bodies and hands, and then two dead bodies, hands and a pair of intimidating phone calls. He wondered when the fucking zombie partridge and the pear tree would pop out of the woodwork.

“I don’t know for sure,” he said slowly. “I got a call right after we found the box on the porch. And then when I was walking to the train the night before last, when I found the second girl. I think they called again, right before I got to the condo building.”

“What did they say?”

Ian bit his lip, trying to describe it. “They didn’t say anything, really. They kind of, I don’t know. Growled. It sounded like the same person in both calls.” He hesitated, then tried to describe the part that continued to creep him out most. “The first time, after we found the hands in the box, it sounded like they were clapping over the phone.”

“Shit, man,” Mickey said. He looked stunned. Ian watched him clench his fist, pressing it into the leather of the couch right near Ian’s hip. “And you think that might’ve been, you know. The person?”

“I don’t know,” Ian admitted. “I mean, I have no way of knowing for sure, you know? It could’ve just been a trick. They were different numbers, but it all sounded the same when I answered. I think.”

Ian winced. It didn’t exactly sound like smoking gun evidence.

Mickey was still frowning. “But you think it was them?”

Ian nodded.

“Shit, man,” Mickey said again, but he didn’t seem inclined to argue. Ian was grateful for that. If there was one thing he was coming to depend on Mickey for, it was his willingness to trust Ian to know his own mind (even if he was incredibly vocal about his disapproval when it came to Ian’s tendency for impulsive decisions, but then, Mickey might have a point there). No one had really trusted him like that before, especially not Lip or Fiona. It made him feel unexpectedly warm, in spite of everything.

The morning light was streaming through window, drawing patterns on the stained carpet. It was looking like a beautiful day out, Ian noticed, thinking how odd it was that such a pretty day when so many things felt so ugly.

He looked at Mickey, who was still watching him worriedly. His cheeks were sleep-flushed, his eyes puffy. He was so pretty in that moment Ian felt a real smile start to grow on his face.

“Thanks,” he said, and when Mickey blinked, he clarified, “for last night.”

The blush that swept over Mickey’s face was blinding in its intensity.

“It’s not like it’s a big fucking deal,” he mumbled, looking anywhere but at Ian. Ian watched Mickey turn to watch Jeopardy with pointed concentration, refusing to meet Ian’s eye.

“Yeah, well. It was a big deal for me,” Ian said. “So. Thank you.” He turned his right hand palm up, set it on the couch next to Mickey’s knee, and waited.

Mickey glanced down at his hand, finally. He licked his lips, looking up at Ian’s face. “God, you’re such a weirdo,” Mickey muttered. He huffed a little, but Ian didn’t take his hand away, and then, like ripping off a Band-Aid, Mickey shot his hand forward and wrapped it around Ian’s in one hurried movement. He met Ian’s eye and squeezed his palm, a little defiant, as good as saying, fuck you, I’m not afraid. Ian squeezed back, and there was a brief back-and-forth squeeze battle before Mickey cracked and they were both giggling and staring at each other like giant losers.

Mickey turned back to Jeopardy, but he didn’t let go of Ian’s hand for the next hour until Ian’s stomach grumbled loudly and Mickey got up to make egg sandwiches.

It was a lazy morning, eating breakfast, watching game shows, lounging on the couch. Ian texted a few tricks, cleared his calendar for the next few days. He answered the trick from the night before with the nice condo where he’d found the second girl and told him he couldn’t see him anymore. He didn’t think he’d be able to walk by that corner of Michigan Avenue ever again. Mickey didn’t ask him any questions, but Ian got the feeling he knew what he was up to as he watched Ian text from the corner of his eye.

Once the hand-holding barrier had been broken, Ian was pleased at how whenever Mickey sat back down on the couch, he reached back out for Ian’s hand reflexively. He liked that Mickey seemed to crave the contact, that he was coming to feel comfortable touching Ian, being touched. But Ian also doubted Mickey needed it like Ian did in that moment. The hot, constant pressure of Mickey’s hand in his was the only thing keeping Ian’s mind from racing over and over everything he didn’t want to think about.

When one o’clock rolled around and he was starting to feel too agitated to sit around anymore, Ian glanced at Mickey. “You don’t have to come with if you don’t want to, you know,” he offered.

Mickey shot him a glare. “You can go fuck yourself, asshole,” he said. And Ian supposed that was that.

It turned out to be a rare sunny fall day, the sunlight chasing away the chill if you stayed out of the shadows. They didn’t hold hands or anything on the street, but occasionally Mickey bumped his shoulder and Ian found himself grinning, then biting back the expression. He felt guilty feeling giddy, like he should be able to maintain some kind of constant state of doom with all that hung over his head, even though every time Mickey brushed against him he wanted to arch his back like a cat. It was confusing.

When they reached Svetlana’s apartment, he saw her and her roommates sprawled on lawn chairs in a semi-circle in front of the building, heads tilted back like sunflowers.

As they reached the clustering of lawn chairs, one of Svetlana’s neighbors was picking her way through the scattered women soaking up the sun, shaking her head as she balanced a grocery bag on her hip.

Svetlana opened one eye to glare at her, pulling her sunglasses down her nose. “Is America not land of choices? Can I not sit on own goddamn sidewalk?” she demanded. Her neighbor just carried on inside, and Svetlana nodded, readjusting her glasses and closing her eye again with satisfaction. “That is what I thought.”

“Hey, Lana,” Ian called out. He felt rather than saw Mickey stiffen at his side, hanging back slightly as they came to stand beside Svetlana’s lawn chair. So much for Mickey waiting outside, it seemed like.

Svetlana sat straight up in a flurry of movement, her eyes shooting to Ian’s. “You are here,” she said quickly. She saw Mickey standing behind his shoulder and her eyes narrowed slightly. “And you are also here.”

“Jesus—I need a cigarette,” Mickey said, turning on his heel to head to a corner store they’d passed. Ian opened his mouth to call him back, but Svetlana reached out and put a hand on his elbow.

“Let him walk,” she said. “Ones like him, they need the movement.”

Ian sighed, turning back to her. She was probably right. He was surprised to see her looking after Mickey’s retreating back still, frowning. Ian wondered what was in her head, how the gears were turning as she saw how much Mickey hated being around her.

After a beat she blinked and turned to the women around her. She said something sharp in Russian, and the four other women grumbled, moving with slow feline grace, but gathering up their lawn chairs all the same. Svetlana said a few other angry sounding words (or maybe she was just asking them to pick up some eggs and hot sauce at the store, Ian had no idea, Russian always sounded so angry to him) and the other women put a little hustle in it, packing up and moving inside the building, leaving Ian and Svetlana alone on the sidewalk.

Ian lowered himself to the second-to-last cement stair and wrapped his arms around his knees. He could feel Svetlana’s eyes on him, waiting.

“I found another dead girl,” he blurted. Svetlana didn’t gasp or swear or interrupt, but Ian could sense the sudden, intense panic just the same.

He told her everything he knew, jumbling the timeline up and circling back around to reinsert details he had forgotten, but she didn’t interject, waiting patiently as he told the story. When he got to the part about the missing feet on the second girl, he saw Svetlana’s eyes furrow, so focused on the extreme anxiety written on her face that he startled and jumped when Mickey threw himself down beside him on the steps.

“Fucking cigarette prices in this goddamn city, I swear to god, it’s fucking criminal,” he groused, shaking one out from the pack and lighting it. He sounded cranky and casual, but he was pressed hip-to-shoulder against Ian and he could feel how tense the other boy was. He kept his head down, looking away from Svetlana, as he took a deep drag and then handed it over to Ian.

Ian thanked him, grateful for the distraction. Recounting the part about the missing feet was making his stomach feel wobbly. He rocked sideways playfully, using his size to force Mickey to bob to his right a little.

“You’re a freaking bully,” Mickey told him as he shoved back at Ian lightly.

Svetlana was watching the two of them, but her attention seemed directed inward as she digested Ian’s story.

“You will be seeing feet soon, I think,” Svetlana said. Seeing Ian and Mickey’s twin confused expressions, she shrugged. “Like hands in box. Feet will probably follow.”

Ian recoiled, he couldn’t help it. Mickey finally looked up at Svetlana, scowling. “Nice fucking bedside manner there, jesus.”

Svetlana raised her own perfectly sculpted brow. “He is not in bed.”

“It’s a fucking figure of speech,” Mickey retorted.

“What is figure of speech, is like shape?”

“No, it’s like something you say when you mean something else.”

“Why would you not say what you mean?”

Mickey threw his hands up in frustration and Svetlana smirked slightly.

Ian wanted to tell Mickey that Svetlana knew what a figure out of speech was and that she was just fucking with him now, but he was distracted thinking about those goddamn feet.

“It could just be a coincidence,” he said. And it could be. Ian could’ve just stumbled on something that had nothing to do with him. The hands could’ve been a fluke, or meant for someone else in the building. The calls could be some creepy trick who got off on prank calling him. It was a stretch, but not impossible.

“It would be pretty fucking bold to leave another box of appendages on my doorstep,” Mickey said dubiously, speaking to Ian rather than Svetlana. “The cops have been doing drive bys.”

Svetlana shrugged prosaically. “We shall see how it goes. Maybe rain or maybe snow, maybe yes or maybe no.” Svetlana looked at Mickey’s suspicious look. “Is Russian saying,” she explained, a little smug.

A slightly spastic expression of incredulity darted across his face. “But like, how is that a helpful saying? It literally encompasses all possible scenarios. It’s like, Schrodinger’s cat or whatever.”

That shook Ian from his thoughts. “Oh my god, such a freaking nerd.” One corner of his lip quirked, even as Mickey shot him a glare.

“Why don’t you tell us about the girl whose name you found, Red Dawn?” Mickey told Svetlana. “Why do you think the dead girl is this Helen chick?”

“Harriet,” Ian corrected. “Harriet Bell.”

Svetlana took a moment to glare at Mickey, clearly unimpressed by his nickname for her, then she looked at Ian. “Not many white girls work near there. No one should be working near there, is not safe, not now,” Svetlana paused to add, looking deliberately at Ian, who squirmed only slightly, “but other girls notice her in neighborhood. And she work at massage parlor nearby and no one is seeing her there since nearly four weeks now.”

“So what, that’s it? This Harriet girl could just be on vacation or some shit,” Mickey said. He sounded irritated at what Ian could understand sounded like some loose fucking evidence to a layperson.

Svetlana didn’t dignify that with a response, and Ian didn’t really blame her. It was hard to explain the network of gossip that ran through the community of low-end sex workers that they knew. If you didn’t have a pimp, you had the other girls and rentboys who knew you, who checked in with you to make sure you were okay. Ian had a feeling Svetlana had given them the cliffs notes of her research into Harriet Bell anyway. She was nothing if not terrifyingly thorough, and if she’d asked one person, she’d asked at least two dozen more.

“Do you think you could find a picture of her?” Ian asked Svetlana instead.

Svetlana nodded. “I will ask,” she said. She reached out for Ian’s hand, and he gave it to her. She rubbed her thumb over his knuckles, frowning. “Please, do not do something stupid.”

“When have I ever done anything stupid?” he asked. His tone was teasing, the line a secret joke between them. Because doing something stupid was kind of his trademark.

“You are right. I must be thinking of other stupid Carrot Boy,” Svetlana replied, her mouth twitching.

Mickey seemed to hit his limit. He stood up abruptly. “We good here?” he asked. “Can we hit the fucking road or you two want to make out or something?”

Svetlana rolled her eyes and said something that was probably devastatingly cutting in Russian, and stood up, folding up her lawn chair. Ian joined her, feeling a little uncomfortable as he looked at her, who looked like she longed to beg Ian to be careful some more, and Mickey, who was already backing away down the sidewalk.

“Thanks, Lana,” Ian said. Impulsively, he leaned forward and wrapped her in a tight hug. She was a little stiff at first, since they rarely embraced like this, but then she hugged him back.

“Please send me message, let me know things are okay,” she whispered in his ear.

“I will,” he promised, and they pulled apart. He held up a hand in farewell, walking backward the way Mickey had gone. Svetlana just watched him go, her face impassive, before she went up the stairs and disappeared into her building.

Ian turned and jogged a little to catch up with Mickey, who was scowling at him.

“That was a fucking waste of time,” Mickey told him. “We have no way of knowing that the first girl even was Harriet Bell.”

Ian shrugged, then dared to reach out and ruffle Mickey’s hair. Mickey swatted his hand away, but his scowl lessened. Ian wanted to kiss him more than anything, but he resisted. “Thanks for coming with anyway,” he said.

“Whatever,” Mickey mumbled. The tips of his ears were red.

“We should go home. You need to shower,” Ian said. He reached forward and poked Mickey on the nose, and this time Mickey reared back, smacking his hand away with more force. “You smell, dude.”

And then he darted away, laughing as Mickey chased him all the way back to the apartment, swearing.

 

****

 

Mickey was standing in the shower, letting the water from the shitty showerhead dribble over his shoulders, and he was thinking about jerking off.

It was probably weird, how speculative he felt about the whole idea. Most guys probably just felt the urge, reached down and went to town. It couldn’t be just a careless thing to him though, he had to specifically decide, yes, this is what he wanted to do. He glanced down at his dick, still half-hard against his thigh from running to race Ian up the stairs to the apartment, shoving against each other playfully.

He thought of Ian’s face, flushed and a little sweaty as they jostled to get in the apartment door, how Ian wrapped an arm around Mickey’s waist to hold him back, laughing that loud, crazy laugh right in Mickey’s ear in a way that should have been annoying but instead made Mickey press back just slightly, to feel how Ian’s chest felt pressed against his back.

His dick twitched, hardening more, and Mickey made the call.

Alright. This was happening.

Squirting some body wash into his palm, he wrapped a hand around his dick, startling a little at the sensation. It had been a while since he’d even wanted to try jerking off, and he gave himself a minute, getting used to the slide, the twist of his wrist, how his balls felt heavy hanging between his legs.

Tentatively, he thought of Ian. Jerking off was rare enough for him, but thinking of an actual person while he got down with himself hadn’t happened in years, and he was anxious at the idea of it. Plus, he wondered if it was weird, trying to jack off to Ian while he was sitting in the next room, oblivious to the faces and sounds Mickey was making as he picked up the tempo, gripping himself a little harder as he thought of pale skin, faded freckles, bony wrists, broad shoulders, stupid shiny red hair.

He was really getting into this, he realized, a little surprised, trying not to lose his rhythm even as he startled himself by rubbing his thumb at the sensitive underside of his dick near the head. He gasped, the sound breathy in the damp air of the bathroom, and he clamped his mouth shut, hoping Ian didn’t hear anything through the paper thing walls.

His free hand was holding onto the tile on the wall, his fingers clenched as they tried to find purchase against the slippery surface. He glanced at it, his fingers twitching, considering. He felt a little reckless, like he was breaking some kind of rule. He hesitated.

What the hell, while he was exploring he might as well throw a finger or two up there.

He paused to squirt more body wash onto his free hand, then went back to stroking his dick, reaching the other hand beneath him, trying to find the right angle to get in there.

He wavered, running the tip of his finger around his hole while he deliberated. Slowly, he pressed forward, and when he gasped this time he didn’t really have the presence of mind to try and be quiet. It felt so good, the slick, heated slide, and found himself thinking about lying in bed with Ian, kissing him, being kissed like he was important, and what it would be like if Ian had pushed further, had turned Mickey over and started playing with his ass.

Goddamn faggot.

Mickey actually winced, the movement making his finger jerk nearly free of his hole, losing his rhythm on his dick.

Fucking pole-smoking queer.

And that wasn’t his voice in his head, he knew, that was his dad’s voice. That was his dad’s furious, disgusted, hateful voice and against his will, he felt the beginnings of red, burning humiliation begin to coast across his shoulders. He felt his muscles jerk, his face go numb, the phantom sensation of being beaten and pistol-whipped rising like some kind of monster, overshadowing any tenuous fantasy he might’ve been having. It was like the nightmares, where he felt out of control of his own mind, and he could feel his erection starting to fade.

“Fuck,” he whimpered, sagging against the wall of the shower.

He heard his own voice, broken and tired. Out of nowhere, Mickey’s spine snapped straight. He straightened, scowling. No. He was almost nineteen years old. His mind was his own. He repeated it to himself, his own, his own, his mind was his own.

Readjusting his grip on his flagging dick, he gave it a hard, focused stroke, then another, concentrating on the head, wiping his thumb over the tip to collect a drop of pre-come. Before he had a chance to consider, he pressed his finger back into his hole, then another, hissing at the burn but welcoming the distraction of the slight pain, because he didn’t hear anything else in his head now but his own harsh breathing, his heart pounding against his chest.

He was skittish about fantasizing about any sex stuff again directly, so instead, he thought of lying in bed with Ian. Instead of Ian playing with his ass or trying to fuck him, he had a sudden crystal-clear image of Ian turning around so that instead of Mickey spooning Ian, his long, giraffe-like arms and legs were wrapped around Mickey instead, holding him steady and still, breathing hotly on the back of Mickey’s neck.

Mickey twitched, his fingers inside of him finding a rhythm, his jerking motions on his dick becoming less controlled. And then in the fantasy, he saw Ian’s eyes close softly and his mouth go slack in unconsciousness.

He moaned, actually honest-to-god moaned, at the thought of Ian curling up around him and going to sleep.

Man but this was a weird fantasy, he had to admit it, but that was just a passing thought as the images multiplied. Ian waking him up in the morning with a kiss, Ian was holding his hand, he was walking with him in the old neighborhood, Mickey was cooking him dinner.

What had become a wank of determination was transforming into the hottest jerk he could remember having in his life.

Nothing he was thinking about was objectively sexy, and it wasn't like he really knew what to fantasize about sex-wise anyway (he didn't even watch porn these days, jesus, he was a square) but each thought was hotter than the last, and when his fingers managed to swipe against his prostate, he groaned, his body and face feeling hot, breaths panting.

He was so close, he could feel it, the sweet burn working its way up from the small of his back, and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d come from jerking off, this was incredible, he felt like fucking Superman, and then he was coming, his back bowing, and before he could stop himself, he said Ian’s name harshly, the sound a hiss in the quiet bathroom.

He had to lean against the shower wall panting for at least five minutes before he could stand again on shaky legs. He finished washing up, his movements leisurely, a wide smile on his face. He got out, toweled off, smiled at himself in the mirror. Fuck you, dad, he thought to himself, and nearly cackled out loud in triumphant glee. He felt on the verge of happy, relieved tears.

For the first time in a long time, he felt like a normal teenager.

He pulled on the t-shirt and jeans he’d hooked over the door, sauntering out to the living room on a cloud.

“Dude, you okay? I thought you fell and hit your head and I would have to bust in and rescue your concussed, naked body,” Ian said. He was sprawled on the couch, his own hair still damp from his shower before Mickey, watching him oddly.

Mickey’s tongue felt glued to his mouth. His brain was soupy and warm, and all he could manage was a loopy grin in Ian’s direction. He watched with delight as a flush worked its way up Ian’s neck, like he could somehow tell what Mickey was thinking. Mickey felt a wave of affection just looking at him. He felt a wave of affection toward everything.

Still riding the wave of his goodwill toward all his fellow man, when his uncle called about a job, Mickey flipped open the phone, watching Ian’s eyes go wide as he spoke. “Hey Ronnie, is it cool if Ian comes with today?”

And that was how Mickey found himself seated beside Ian cleaning guns in an old warehouse on South Paulina Street. It was an oddly comforting way to spend an afternoon, Mickey thought, the calming, repetitive steps of cleaning the guns and filing off the registration numbers, arguing with Colin about baseball, listening to Ronnie go through the jobs lined up for the next week. Maybe he was still feeling relaxed from his triumph in the shower, but Mickey caught himself smiling to himself once or twice.

Ian, on the other hand, was visibly wary, cleaning the automatic weapon in front of him quietly, glancing tensely at Colin and Ronnie on the other side of the table. Mickey was only half-listening to Ronnie, more concerned with the way Ian’s leg pressed against his under the bench. God but he was a fucking sap.

Colin was watching Ian like he was trying to place him. After a few minutes, he snapped his fingers. “The Gallagher kid,” he said. “You’re the Gallagher kid that's staying with Mickey."

"Can't slip a thing past you, eagle eye," Mickey muttered.

“It’s not like you introduced him to me or nothing when you got here, man,” Colin said defensively. And huh, maybe Mickey hadn't, like he just expected his family to know who Ian was. Huh. Colin turned back to Ian. “So, everything work out at police station for you?” Ian’s eyebrows puckered as he looked from Colin to Mickey. Colin laughed. “I was Mickey’s get-away driver, asshole had me driving like a bat out of hell as soon as he got your message that you were being booked.”

“Oh, really?” Ian said, turning to grin at Mickey.

Mickey focused on making sure he was getting the cloth all the way through the barrel of the gun he was cleaning, avoiding Ian’s soft smile.

Ronnie was listening in, obviously. “So why did you get taken in anyway, Ian?” he asked.

Ian’s smile dropped. “Another girl was killed,” he said. “I found her body, too.”

“Hm,” Ronnie said, remarkably cool considering the admission and that, comparatively, Colin's mouth had fallen open across the table. “So. That’s two, now.”

Colin squawked. "Two? What do you mean, two, two murders? Jesus Mickey, you're running with a rough crowd," Colin said. Mickey rolled his eyes, because he had literally seen his brother break kneecaps before, he didn't know why Colin was so delicate today.

“Looks like your admirer is getting bolder,” Ronnie said to Ian after a pause, as if Colin had never spoken.

“I don’t have an admirer,” Ian insisted, setting down the dismantled gun with a little extra force.

“You did get those calls, though.” Mickey instantly regretted volunteering the information when Ian glared at him. He held a hand up in supplication. “Ian, man, same team, here.” Ian didn't apologize, but he did stop glaring, looking down at his hands instead.

While neither Mickey nor Ian went into detail, Ronnie seemed to understand the gist of that little aside. “Well, either way, I think it seems safe to say you’re probably connected to these girls or the killer in some way,” Ronnie said in an impressively mild voice.

“It has to be the girls who are connected, not me,” Ian insisted, a little desperately. It was like Mickey could see inside Ian and watch his thoughts chase themselves around like mice. Ian needed to believe it was the girls who were the connection, and that Ian was just tangentially involved somehow, because otherwise, Ian would feel responsible for all this, the big dumb idiot.

“Well, if I was a cop, I would say looking into the details connecting the girls first is a smart, calculated move. They’re the most obvious pieces of evidence here, and they’re the easiest places to start, so you’re not jumping to conclusions before you have all the details. Again, if I was a cop, that’s what I would do,” he repeated. His laced his hands together and laced them over his belly, leaning back in his chair.

“But you’re not a cop,” Mickey prompted.

“I am not,” Ronnie agreed. He leaned forward, the front two legs of his chair hitting the ground with a soft thump. “And since I’m not a cop, I would say leave the due process to our boys in blue.”

Mickey figured out where he was going immediately, but Ian seemed confused. “What the hell does that mean?”

Ronnie didn’t spare Ian a glance, instead fixing Mickey with a significant raise of his eyebrow. “It means, think of all the people who would want to hurt Ian, and go down the list busting skulls until somebody talks.”

It was so obvious, and a few months ago it would’ve been the first thing Mickey thought to do. Maybe he was going soft, hanging out so much with Ian and his big, thoughtful eyes and grand ideas about justice.

“Jesus, are you serious?” Ian asked. Mickey glanced over and saw Ian was frowning, a little horrified. “Just beat the shit out of people until they tell you what you want to hear?”

“Where would we start, though?” Mickey asked, because he was intrigued.

“Well, usually you start with people you owe money to, someone you might’ve crossed or pissed off,” Ronnie explained, then eyed Ian. “But, with a teenager like him, it’s probably something simpler. Old girlfriends, probably.” Ronnie paused, actually coughing a little. “Or, you know.”

Boyfriends, then, Mickey decided. He wondered if they should start with tricks, or go narrower.

Ronnie seemed to follow the general direction of his thoughts. “Might want to focus on more serious relationships first, save some time.”

So just boyfriends, then. Mickey could ask Ian more later, but he had a feeling even before the whole hooking thing, Ian probably had no trouble getting dudes. The thought made him flush and clench his jaw, feeling more irritated than he ever had at the thought of any nameless, faceless trick before, the thought of Ian dating someone seriously. Which was stupid, Mickey knew. Ian had a life before he ran into Mickey again. He was a good-looking kid, smart, loyal. He probably had to beat them away. Fuck. This line of thought was not helping him feel less off-kilter.

Ian was looking on in horror. “Fucking…would you fucking listen to yourselves? This is insane!”

“If you want my advice,” Ronnie said, finally turning to look at Ian, “that’s my advice. Bust some skulls.”

“But that’s totally illegal,” Ian sputtered, and Mickey had a feeling he was grasping at excuses now. Nobody in the room was on the good side of Johnny Law, least of all Ian. He got the feeling Ian was just reeling at the feeling of being out of control, at Ronnie taking over the situation, as Ronnie was wont to do.

“Ian, come on with that shit,” Mickey said tiredly, and Ian elbowed him in the ribs.

“Shut it,” he hissed, still watching Ronnie desperately. “We can’t just go around beating people up, then we’re no better than the fucking cops.”

Ronnie sighed and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. He was looking at Ian like he was trying to take him apart and figure out how to expedite the process to get Ian to agree with him. Mickey had been on the receiving end of that look countless times and winced in sympathy. It was a powerful expression.

“Look, kiddo,” Ronnie said, and Mickey was a little surprised at the softness in his voice. His eyes were hard, but he sounded like he was trying not to alarm Ian too much, when usually Ronnie could give a shit about soothing a ruffled teenager unless it was his nephews or nieces. “You sound like you’re trying to play by some kind of code here. I can appreciate that. But what you have to realize is that most of the people around you right now—that fucking mick cop, whoever’s hurting these girls, the asshole trying to scare you—are not. And a code don’t mean shit when you’re in danger.”

“Ronnie’s not trying to freak you our or anything, man, he just knows about stuff like this,” Colin offered, and Mickey looked at him, surprised by the concern in his tone. Colin saw him staring and shrugged. Mickey refocused on Ian, figuring he’d have to time to worry about the weird, knowing look in Colin’s eye later.

Ian was biting his lip, chewing hard enough that Mickey had to curl his hands into fists so he wouldn’t reach over and press his fingers down so Ian would ease up on the teeth.

“Ronnie’s right, though,” Mickey said. “We can’t just sit on our asses here.”

Ian glared at him. “I’m not sitting on my ass, fuck, I just don’t think—”

“Let’s focus up here, boys,” Ronnie interrupted. Ian shut his mouth, but Mickey could see him grinding his teeth. “You don’t got much family around these days, do you?”

Ian didn’t seem like he wanted to answer, glancing away, and Mickey found himself jumping in to explain. “It’s complicated. His brother’s in town, but he’s going to school.”

Ronnie sighed. “I’m just saying, kid. It’s not the worst thing to let someone help your ass out sometimes.”

“I’m not a goddamn charity case,” Ian argued, but he sounded tired. Mickey knew how much he hated to seem weak, or like he couldn’t take care of himself, but even he had to see that they were kind of beyond that at this point.

“You’re not a charity case.” Ronnie sounded dismissive, like the idea was silly. “But Mickey here has made you his problem, for whatever reason,” Ronnie said, and even though he didn’t glance at Mickey, he could tell his uncle had at least a vague suspicion of that reason, “and that makes you my problem, too.” Ian looked ready to argue again, but Ronnie beat him to the punch. “As in, your problems are our problems, whether you like it or not. So stop arguing, you stubborn little shit, and let Mickey take you home and make you dinner, and just think about what we talked about.”

Mickey felt himself turning red. It was like his uncle could read his fucking mind sometimes. Mickey had already been debating whether he wanted to make burgers or kielbasa, and how best to tackle Ian's reluctance at accepting Ronnie's help. Man but he was fucking predictable anymore.

The abrupt ending to the argument seemed to do the trick with Ian. “You know, you and Mickey don’t really look alike, you act the exact same,” he said, his tone grudging but accepting. He stood up, his foot tapping and he looked down at Mickey. “Can we go?” He sounded worn thin, and Mickey stood up immediately.

“Yeah, sure,” Mickey said. He looked at his uncle.

“I’ll give you a call later,” his uncle promised him.

Colin stood up to join them. “I can give you guys a ride,” he said, but Mickey balked at the thought of being trapped in a car with his brother and his curious, pensive expression as he glanced between Mickey and Ian. Mickey raised his eyebrows at Ian, who shook his head infinitesimally.

He shook his head at Colin. “Naw man, it’s cool. We’ll walk.” He turned to follow Ian, who was already high-tailing it toward the door.

It felt good to leave the warehouse, to have the crisp evening air flush against their faces. Mickey breathed in deeply. He felt calmer than he had in days. It felt good to have a plan of action, especially since that plan involved kicking some ass, even if Ian didn’t know that they were following the plan, whether he liked it or not. He’d persuade him later.

Ian was quiet as they walked. Mickey wanted to talk to him, draw him out, but Ian seemed so worn out by the talk with Ronnie that Mickey settled for pressing himself to his side, walking as close to Ian as he could without actually knocking him over. He probably looked like a collie dog trying to herd a rogue sheep back in with the herd. When Ian pressed his shoulder lightly back against Mickey’s, though, he couldn’t really bring himself to care.

 

****

 

Ian was stubbornly reviewing the dozens of reasons why Operation: Bust Some Skulls was not only a dumb plan, but also unlikely to work. It was dangerous, it could draw attention to them both even more, word might get around and drive the killer underground, Mickey’s uncle was a busybody and he didn’t have any right to boss Ian around into accepting his violent, reckless idea. The final reason was the most compelling for Ian.

As they walked, Mickey seemed like he was bursting to ask Ian questions, but for once Ian longed for silence, and Mickey appeared to realize that. He stuck close to Ian’s side though, and Ian appreciated it.

In the end, he’d more or less decided to reject Ronnie’s plan outright in favor of investigating more subtly on his own, maybe with Lip’s help, and was just waiting until they got back to the apartment to tell Mickey.

They stopped at the grocery store, the rhythm of filling up the shopping cart and going through the checkout line (Mickey let Ian split the cost after a protracted argument in the frozen food section, but Ian wasn’t fucking indigent, he could afford to split the goddamn groceries, and he wore Mickey down eventually) so warmly domestic it kind of took Ian’s breath away.

As they walked out onto the street again, each carrying a paper bag, bickering over French fries or tater tots to the go with the burgers, Ian almost walked right past Steve.

“Ian?” The voice was familiar and caught Ian’s attention immediately.

He spun around, startling at the even more familiar face of Fiona’s boyfriend.

“Steve?” Ian said back. Then he wrinkled his nose. “Or is it Jimmy? I kind of lost track there.”

“Steve’s fine,” Steve replied. His face seemed stiffer than Ian remembered, his dark hair longer than Ian remembered, his shoulders a little skinnier. He looked almost like a stranger, but then, most of Ian’s memories of Steve involved him trying desperately to win back Fiona’s affections after fucking up spectacularly over something, so maybe he just looked different when he wasn’t begging for forgiveness.

Then another thought clicked, and Ian’s heart was pounding a little. “Why aren’t you in Michigan? Is everything okay? Is Fiona okay?”

Steve sighed. “She’s fine, I guess. Michigan’s fine too, but I don’t think Fiona really cares.” Seeing Ian’s confused face, Steve pulled his keys out of his pocket, jingling them idly as he seemed to consider his words. “She didn’t exactly stick around the Upper Peninsula when she left my ass.”

That was a bit of shock, Ian had to admit. Last time he’d seen Fiona, she’d practically beamed at any mention of Steve and medical school in Michigan, at living together outside of Chicago, away from the poverty of the South Side. Obviously, something had shifted.

“Last I heard, they moved back here,” Steve was saying.

“Wait, Fiona’s back in Illinois?” Ian asked. His heart was pounding. “And Debbie’s with her? How long have they been back?”

“Fuck if I know,” Steve said, scuffing his shoe. He seemed to be shooting for an air of casual disinterest, but he was still fidgeting with the car keys in his hand. “She broke it off with me about six months ago.”

Ian was struck dumb. Six months.

Mickey inserted himself into the conversation. “Ian, how do you know this fucking asshole?’

“Hey, fuck you,” Steve responded, but Mickey wasn’t looking at him.

“He’s dating Fiona. Or I mean, he was. He moved with Fi and Debbie up to Michigan two years ago,” Ian tried to explain, even as he felt faintly dizzy. Fiona was back in the state again, possibly even back in the city, and he hadn’t heard a word from her. That meant she’d been back before he spoke with Lip. Had Lip lied to him? He was hit the irrational thought that his brothers and sisters were getting together without him, reknitting their relationships, and leaving Ian out of all of it. Somewhat crazily, he wondered if they were too embarrassed to bring him back into the fold.

“You heard from Ned?” Steve asked him, drawing him back from his thoughts.

“Ned. Um,” Ian hedged. It was weird hearing Ned’s name on Steve’s lips. “Not in over a year I think.”

“Who the hell’s Ned?” Mickey cut in.

“Just some guy Ian used to date,” Steve said. He had a hard look on his face as he watched Ian, like he wanted to make Ian squirm or something with the admission. It felt like light-years ago, but Ian could remember how Steve had looked like the bottom dropped out of his world when he found out Ian was sleeping with Ned.

“Yeah, but it’s not a big deal,” Ian told Mickey. He could see the wheels turning in Mickey's head anyway, thinking about his uncle’s advice to round up old boyfriends who might have it out for Ian and go down the list. Goddamn Ronnie.

“Yeah, not a big deal. Totally,” Steve said. He sounded a little strangled.

Mickey was just ignoring Steve at this point. “Dude, you don’t know if it’s not a big deal or not. My uncle said—”

“Your uncle knows shit about my life,” Ian argued back. “If we’re going to make a list of everyone I’ve ever messed around with, we’re going to be fucking busy, Mick.”

“Look, I don’t care who you bang, but I think it’s worth at least talking about it—”

“And I don’t, so fucking drop it,” Ian said. He knew he was being a brat, but it was too weird, running into Steve with Mickey at his side, thinking about Ned for the first time in months, then trying to argue that Ned didn’t belong on a list of potential serial killers, jesus fucking christ. He almost forgot Steve was standing in front of them, caught up in the weird bubble of arguing with Mickey.

“Sorry to hear Ned was such a passing fancy for you,” Steve said, and there it was again, that strange, new hardness to his voice and expression. Ian had never really considered himself close to Steve or anything, but he’d always seen him as a harmless, hapless tool. However, the look Steve was giving him now was far from friendly.

Mickey made a face. “The fuck kind of name is Ned, anyway?”

“It’s the name of my fucking father,” Steve said tersely.

Mickey’s brow furrowed. “Wait.” He made a face, looking at Ian. “You used to have a thing with this asshole’s dad?”

“Again, fuck you,” Steve said to Mickey, then went back to glaring stiffly at Ian. “And it wasn’t really a thing, so much as it was Ian helping to tear apart my parent’s marriage.”

Ian felt his eyebrows go up. It was easy to forget about the way his life was two years ago, or if not forget, then to push it to side so he wouldn’t have to think about it every day. He didn’t like being reminded of it now. He didn’t like having to think of being with Ned, because if he was being completely honest with himself, that was technically when he could look back and begin to trace his slow, ragged, unsteady transition into hooking.

“Jesus, so fucking dramatic,” Mickey said under his breath. He was giving Steve an unimpressed once-over.

“You shut the fuck up!” Steve shouted suddenly, pointing his finger in Mickey’s face, and Ian was feeling completely taken aback. Steve’s eyes were wild, his finger trembling. He took a step toward Ian, which had Mickey stepping forward in almost the same breath.

“Why don’t you back up off my friend there, princess,” Mickey drawled, putting a hand on Steve's chest and shoving hard enough that Steve stumbled back. Ian reached out and grabbed at Mickey's upper arm.

“Mick, don’t,” he said. His voice was shaking. He couldn’t take his eyes off Steve, off the sudden, unexpected rage he saw in his eyes.

“What, you gonna beat me up for him or some shit?” Steve demanded of Mickey. He laughed harshly. He took a step closer. He was shorter than Ian, still slightly taller than Mickey, but Mickey was stockier and looked like he wanted to rip Steve apart, Ian’s hand on his arm the only thing holding him back.

But Steve wasn’t really looking at Mickey, his eyes still on Ian. Ian tried to remember if he had ever seen Steve lose his temper, outside of little spats with Fiona. There was something almost unhinged in his face, the way an animal looks panicked and capable of anything when it’s been cornered. “You destroy my fucking family, you abandon your sister and tear her heart out, and then you have the balls to just stand there, looking all fucking innocent?”

“Steve, man, I didn’t—” Ian tried to say, but Steve cut him off with a wild wave of his hand.

“That fucking baby face of yours, like sugar wouldn’t melt in your goddamn mouth, but I know what you’re capable of,” Steve went on. He mouth twisted. “Fiona knows, too.” He gave Ian a knowing look. Ian got the sense that he was hearing an explosion of words Steve had been waiting to throw at him for a long time. “Looks like you didn’t have that far to fall, though, did you?"

Mickey stepped forward, pulling out of Ian’s grip, but Ian was too shocked to really try and pull him back. He watched Mickey step forward, crowding into Steve’s space, chests bumping chests.

“Listen, you whiny little bitch, you get the fuck out of my friend’s face here or I will break every goddamn bone in your body, you fucking hear me?” he bit out.

People were giving them a wide berth on the sidewalk now, eyeing the obvious altercation, and Ian wondered helplessly if someone was going to call the cops.

Mickey gave Steve another shove, harder than before, and Steve stumbled backwards so hard he fell, catching himself on his forearms before his ass hit the ground.

“I see you again, I fucking kill you, you get me, pretty boy?” Mickey said, his voice low and deadly.

He didn’t wait for an answer, stooping to scoop up the grocery bag Ian hadn’t realized had fallen from his slack fingers and wrapping his hand around Ian’s wrist.

“Let’s go, man,” he said quietly, tugging Ian away. Ian resisted for a second, still staring at Steve, who was watching them leave venomously from his position sprawled on the sidewalk, before he let Mickey tow him away, completely shaken. He felt like he could feel Steve’s glare on the back of his neck all the way down the street.

Steve’s words echoed in his head. He couldn’t stop hearing the stark loathing, almost hatred, in his voice.

“The fuck was that back there?” Mickey exploded as soon as they were around the corner of the block.

“Um,” Ian said. It was all he had for a second. He rubbed both hands roughly over his face until his skin prickled slightly. “I told you, that was Fiona’s boyfriend. Or her ex-boyfriend, I guess.”

“Yeah, I got that, and you hung out with his dad for a while? How the fuck old was this fucking Ned guy?”

“He was in his fifties at the time, I guess,” Ian said distractedly. What had Steve meant, Fiona knew? What did Fiona knew? His throat felt tight, reminded that Fiona was in town and hadn’t tried to call Ian once.

“So then you were, what,” Mickey said, pausing to consider, “fucking fifteen years old when you started shacking up with his fucking geriatric dad?”

“Nearly seventeen,” Ian corrected. He ran a hand over his face again defensively at Mickey’s expression of disgust. “What, he was nice to me. He bought me stuff. Let me order room service.”

Mickey rolled his eyes. “Well, I hope you got some material goods out of it, jesus.”

“It wasn’t like that Mickey, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ian said, and he could feel his temper rising.

Mickey held up a conciliatory hand. “Settle down, dude.” He jerked his chin in the direction of the where they’d left Steve lying on his ass. “I mean, it was his fucking grown-ass dad who was screwing around with an underage kid. I don’t know why he’s so pissed at you. I’m not blaming you or anything. It’s just weird that that fucking guy was.”

“Fiona does, too, apparently,” Ian said quietly.

“What?”

Ian blanched a little. He hadn’t meant to say that. “I mean, nothing. She just, she didn’t like that I was hooking up with Steve’s dad, that’s all. Maybe that’s why I haven’t heard from her.”

The face Mickey made was one of supreme impatience. “Don’t be stupid. I think it’s more likely your sister’s trapped beneath a vending machine trying to reach her phone across the floor than avoiding you because some creepy old man took advantage of you.”

It was an odd way to phrase it, and Ian wasn't sure he agreed, but he wanted more than anything to just let it go. He took one of the grocery bags from Mickey’s arms, and Mickey leaned over and nudged him with his hip. He had a soft, almost fond look on his face that made Ian duck his head, struggling to keep it together and not tackle the other boy to the ground. There were eggs in one of the grocery bags, after all.

“Let’s go make burgers, loser,” Mickey said. “I’ll even make your stupid tater tots.”

Ian didn’t smile back, but he did sigh, feeling the tension in his back start to ease slightly. He nodded, and followed Mickey back to the apartment, doing his best not to think about Steve or Fiona or anything else that wasn’t dinner or curling up on the couch to watch game shows with Mickey.

Dinner was delicious (Mickey put Worchester sauce and olive oil in the burger patties and Ian didn’t really understand the chemistry behind it but something about the combination made the burgers fucking delectable), but Ian didn’t have much of an appetite. Mickey was trying to act like he wasn’t staring, and Ian was too busy thinking to tell him to knock it off.

Finally, he pushed back from the table. “Okay,” he said slowly, “so I’m not saying your Uncle Ronnie was right, because he’s not. But what if I’m also saying that maybe we can use some of his strategy along with my normal, non-violent, use-our-brains-like-normal-people plan?”

Mickey’s face broke into a smile. “So, we bashing skulls?”

“Partial skull bashing at most,” Ian tempered.

Mickey punched the air in victory, and Ian shook his head in resignation. “You already won, man, no need to spike the ball,” he said flatly.

But then Mickey started to look pensive. “But you’re sure?”

Ian stared at his plate, seeing Steve’s angry face. “Well, I think it’s pretty obvious I might have more enemies than I thought I did.”

Mickey reached across hesitantly and laid his hand on Ian’s forearm. “You don’t have enemies, man. You didn’t do anything, here,” he said.

Ian didn’t agree, but he didn’t bother to argue, instead getting up silently to clear the table, making short work of cleaning dishes. He knew Mickey was watching him, concern on his face.

“I’m exhausted, man,” Ian said once the dishes were in the drainer. And he was. His eyes were burning at the effort of keeping them open. “I think I’m just going to crash.”

He walked toward the couch, not wanting to assume he could commandeer Mickey’s bed for a second night in a row, but when he glanced up, Mickey was standing next to his bedroom door watching him.

“You coming or what, asshole?” Mickey asked. His arms were crossed over his chest in what he seemed to think was a threatening pose. Ian thought he just looked nervous.

“Was I just invited to a sleepover?” he couldn’t help but ask.

Mickey rolled his eyes. “Fuck you, is what you were invited to.” He stomped off into the bedroom, leaving the door open in silent invitation.

Without hesitation, Ian followed him, padding across the floor and closing the bedroom door behind him, something heavy in chest finally beginning to lift.

Chapter Text

Mickey was headed to the goddamn Laundromat again, and he had no idea what he’d done to piss his uncle off to deserve such a punishment.

“Seriously, Ronnie, whatever it is, I’m sorry,” Mickey said into the phone. He swiped his CTA pass and walked through the turnstile to catch his train. He was already on his way to pick up the bags of money at the drop point and head to the Laundromat, but he still felt like making one last-ditch effort to get someone else on the job.

“Mick, you didn’t do anything wrong,” Ronnie insisted, but Mickey didn’t believe him.

“I’ll cover that run out to Wisconsin next week,” he offered, which was a pretty big concession on his part, he thought. He was notoriously twitchy on long car rides.

“Well, you’re definitely going to Wisconsin anyway, and you’re still getting the cleaning done today,” Ronnie confirmed.

Mickey pulled the phone away from his ear and groaned. He put the phone back to his ear. “Can I just say, once again, that I am truly, deeply sorry for whatever I did that pissed you off—”

“Give it a rest,” Ronnie said. Mickey heard his uncle sigh quietly. “And maybe I think a little space might do you good, pal.”

Even though his uncle couldn’t see him, Mickey made a face. “Um. Okay,” he said slowly, in confusion.

“You haven’t left your apartment by yourself in days, Mick,” his uncle said flatly. “I know you’re worried about the kid, but there are more useful ways to deal with this than going underground.”

Mickey didn’t respond. He didn’t know how to explain that even though Ian hadn’t said anything directly, he knew he was afraid to be alone. Mickey couldn't help but notice that Ian hadn’t left the apartment on his own in days, but he didn’t want to draw attention to it. It had been hard enough leaving Ian this afternoon.

And it wasn’t like Mickey minded being around Ian all the time anyway.

“Have you given any more thought to what we talked about?” Ronnie pressed. “You need to start making noise on you own if you want to find out who’s doing this.”

“Yeah, Ronnie, I’ve been thinking about it,” he said. After Ian had agreed to start tracking down old boyfriends, they had both more or less let it lie. Even though Mickey was eager to get started, it also made everything more real. That someone was actually trying to hurt Ian.

“Well, let me know when you want to get off your ass and do something about it,” his uncle said, and hung up.

Mickey’s train approached, and when he got on, he couldn’t get his uncle’s words out of his mind the entire ride, even after he got off to get the money from the guy in the van at the drop point (only one half-full bag this time, thank god), or after he started his trudge to the Laundromat.

It had been nearly a week since Ian had almost been arrested. In that week, Ian had slept in bed with Mickey every night, always waiting until Mickey asked him impatiently if he was fucking coming to bed or wasn’t he before grinning and stepping into the room. He never made the move to touch Mickey first, always waiting until Mickey huffed and turned to wrap himself around Ian like a shell.

Also, Mickey was really getting the hang of making out. He couldn’t stop thinking about it, and sitting on the L now he could feel his cheeks going pink and a stupid, embarrassing smile cross his mouth, but it was true. He was a really good kisser. Sure, Ian was a sample size of one, but every time Mickey made him squirm, made him gasp, made him pant a little and pull back to bury his face in Mickey’s neck to catch his breath, Mickey had to physically restrain himself from self-high fiving like a dork.

But, Ian never pushed for anything more. He let Mickey set the pace, which objectively, Mickey could appreciate the sensitivity of. The thing was, though, with Mickey driving the ship, he didn’t really know where to go.

So even though he could feel Ian getting hard every night as they made out under the sheets, even though Mickey had long since gotten used to the feeling of rubbing his erection against the V of Ian’s hips, they’d never gotten off together. Usually, Ian pulled away gently and made off to the bathroom, assumedly to jerk off before coming back to bed. In that vein, Mickey himself was jerking off more than he ever had before, two or three times a day, always to thoughts of Ian.

But aside from grabbing his ass now and again (which Ian couldn’t seem to keep his hands off of, Mickey thought smugly), Ian hadn’t tried to touch Mickey anywhere in the ol’ bathing suit area yet.

He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. On the one hand, incredibly, stupidly, breathlessly relieved. The anxiety he felt at even the idea of going downtown with Ian was still intermittently paralyzing. On the other hand, he was also getting anxious that maybe Ian just wasn’t that into fucking around with Mickey. Maybe he got enough of it at work. Mickey had no real idea what hooking was like, maybe Ian just got tired of it and wanted to fool around innocently when he was at home.

(Even though Ian hadn’t been to work in nine days, and Mickey wasn’t sure if he was allowed to feel relieved at that knowledge, at knowing that Ian wasn’t leaving the house to get with strange guys every night, even if it was just for work. But the fact was he did feel relieved, and simultaneously guilty at that relief, like the dumb conflicted asshole he was about Ian these days.)

On the third, mutant, hand, Mickey just wanted to get it over with. For the first time, his virginity didn’t feel like a bland, comforting barrier against the world. It was starting to chafe, and he wondered if it wouldn’t be better to just shuck it the fuck off and be free.

Thoughts about sex and Ian and his own stupid goddamn hang-ups fluttered in his mind like an aviary of psychotic birds dive-bombing his brain, and he barely noticed he was at the Laundromat until the bell above the door was tinkling over his head.

“Hey, I know you,” a voice called from the front desk, making Mickey blink and focus on his surroundings. He saw Mandy leaning on the counter, raising her eyebrows at him. “Nope, wait. You just look a lot like this brother I used to have, but that asshole hasn’t talked to me in years. Crazy resemblance, though.”

She smirked at him as he scowled and stalked up to the counter, throwing the duffel bag of cash on top with excess force.

“What, you kill Eddie and take his job?” he asked crossly.

“Uncle Ronnie moved him onto that construction crew in Arlington Heights,” Mandy said with a shrug. She held her arms out, making faint jazz hands. “So now, you get me!”

Mickey just looked at her. Finally, she shrugged and leaned around him to holler toward the back door. “Hey Chris, dry cleaning!” she called out.

One of Ronnie’s guys Mickey recognized from before came to the front, nearly speed-walking in his haste to reach Mandy.

“Let me get it,” he offered, rushing to heave the duffel bag over his shoulders. Mandy beamed at Chris, who blushed and hurried back to the back room.

Mickey rolled his eyes. “I’ll be over there.” He gestured to the chairs by the front window. He walked through the empty Laundromat, not realizing Mandy had followed him over until she flopped onto the free chair at his side.

“Colin says you’re playing house with some dude from the neighborhood,” Mandy said after a while. “That redheaded Gallagher kid.”

“Colin’s a fucking gossipy idiot,” Mickey retorted.

“Ian, right? The tall one, with the red hair?” Mandy didn’t wait for confirmation, smiling to herself. “I always thought he was cute as hell.”

Well, he was, Mickey agreed silently, and also, he didn’t like the look on Mandy’s face. “Keep it in your pants, jesus.”

“Take it easy, he’s all yours,” Mandy said.

Mickey turned to look at her in shock. “He’s not—I’m not—” His heart was pounding. This was different than casual mentions from Ronnie and Colin. He hadn’t seen Mandy in years. There was no way she would know about him and dudes.

“Christ, relax,” she said. “It’s not like you live with Dad anymore. No real reason to keep it a state secret these days.”

“I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,” he said stiffly.

“Come on, you idiot.” She raised her eyebrows significantly. “Jimmy Carter? I mean, I always thought that kid was kind of a tool, but whatever, lid for every pot, I guess.”

Mickey whirled on her. “You shut your fucking mouth,” he bit out.

Mandy threw her hands up in surrender and they both sat back in a huff, scowling. Silence reined for several minutes. Mandy kept glancing over at him, scowling.

“Jesus, fucking Scandinavian School of Forgiveness over here,” Mandy muttered under her breath, huffing a sigh.

“What the hell does that even mean?” Mickey demanded.

“It means you freeze people out when they piss you off! Shit goes down and you just spin off into the atmosphere and no one ever hears from you ever again.” Mandy laughed, the sound more frustrated than humorous. “I mean, god, Mickey. It’s been almost two years since I seen you last.”

“Not like you were wearing yourself out trying to get in touch,” he said flatly.

“I didn’t want to crowd you!” she argued, her voice going a little shrill. “When Colin told me how bad everything was, I wanted to see you at Uncle Ronnie’s but he said you didn’t want to see anybody! And you always hated when people made a fuss, you know? I thought I’d give you a little space.” She sighed unhappily. “Maybe I fucked up. I probably fucked up. I’m sorry.”

Mickey didn’t say anything, but he felt his pointed silence made his skepticism plain.

She gave him a look. “Maybe I felt guilty, you ever think of that? If I’d been around that day, maybe I could’ve stopped him.”

“No, you couldn’t’ve,” Mickey admitted, remembering his dad’s psychotic, uncontrollable rage from that horrible afternoon. Looking back, he knew now that the only option had been to endure, and hope his dad didn’t kill him. Mandy would’ve just gotten hurt too, if she’d been around and tried to step in.

Mandy, however, took his words as a personal insult.

“Hey, it’s not like you fucking rode in on a big white horse to my rescue whenever it was me in your place,” she said sharply.

Mickey went completely still. There are secrets in some families that are buried so deeply that they become like a living pulse of everyone connected to it, so that you know it without ever knowing it, even though no one says anything, because no one needs to say anything. Mickey had always figured him being into dudes was one of those secrets, but apparently not. But the Milkoviches had other secrets, even if he didn’t want to know them, and just vaguely broaching the subject was enough to make his stomach turn.

Mandy was watching him, like she could see his internal flinch. She rolled her eyes. “I never blamed you or Colin or Iggy or anyone else, you know. I’m just saying.” She worried her lip with her teeth, the gesture reminding Mickey idly of Ian. “Sometimes when you’re on the outside, you don’t…know, really. What to do.”

Mickey kept his mouth shut stubbornly, not really sure how to identify what he was feeling. He didn’t forgive Mandy for dropping him like a bad habit when he moved out. But then, he was starting to feel unsure what, exactly, he needed to forgive her for.

Mandy changed the subject suddenly. “So you and Ian, though?”

Mickey crossed his arms stubbornly. “Him and me are just friends.”

“Friends who fuck,” Mandy said, a teasing smile edging the corners of her mouth.

But Mickey just ignored her, feeling fidgety. He looked away, knowing his darting eyes were his biggest tell but physically unable to hold eye contact with Mandy’s smug grin.

Mandy’s goddamn nosy gaze caught the movement, her eyes narrowing sharply. “Or maybe not fucking, huh?”

What was it about fucking siblings that they somehow managed to know your secrets even when there was no reason for them to even have any idea, Mickey wondered irritably.

She clicked her tongue, then sighed, sounding exasperated. “Mickey. Don’t tell me you haven’t tapped that,” she said. “What are you, afraid?”

She was looking at him like he was a weakling and he felt suddenly enraged, blood rushing to his head so fast he felt dizzy.

“I’m not fucking afraid, so fuck you,” he snapped, getting up to stalk toward the counter. “Can you go check if that goddamn money is cleaned or what?”

In a corner of his mind, Mickey had a feeling if it was anybody else he knew who had an idea of what had happened with his dad, with that fucking Russian bitch, like Ronnie or Colin or Ian, especially Ian, they would back off. They would’ve seen the way his shoulders were tensed so hard he felt ready to snap in half and let it go. But this wasn’t anybody else. This was Mandy. Mandy, who he was slowly realizing had more in common with him than ever before. Mandy, who was probably more familiar with what had happened to Mickey (rape, his mind hissed, why was he such a pussy that he hated to even think the word, let alone say it out loud, but he couldn’t, because even just thinking it made his skin cold and clammy, and he shut it down as soon as it popped up) than anyone else Mickey knew. Mandy, who never went easy on anyone, but especially not Mickey.

Mandy followed him to the counter. “You gotta get back on that horse, Mick,” she said.

“You don’t know what it’s like—” Mickey tried to say, his words halting, but Mandy cut in.

“Yes, I do,” she said stonily. “I know.”

She crossed her arms, staring at him. “What?” he demanded loudly. “Stop fucking staring at me.” When she didn’t, he ran both hands through his hair. “I’m not fucking afraid, okay, you don’t fucking know me anymore.”

“I think I know you fine,” she said evenly.

Mickey felt on the verge of strangling her to death just so he wouldn’t have to see that goddamn look on her face ever again.

In that moment, Chris reappeared from the back room. “Hey Mandy, got that one done as quick as I could for you!” he said jubilantly.

Mickey was already walking toward the door, just stopping himself from running.

“Give Ian my love!” Mandy sing-songed after him, but her voice sounded hard.

“Go fuck yourself,” he said under his breath. He didn’t slow down until he was sitting on the train, still breathing hard, thinking of his stupid sister and her stupid words the entire ride home.

 

****

 

Ian knew he needed to get over his nerves of going out alone. It was verging on Batty Sheila territory, the anxious way his heart would start to pound when he thought about going out by himself.

He hadn’t worked in nine days, and this wave of sudden agoraphobia was doing nothing for his motivation to respond to the texts and forum messages he’d gotten from tricks over the past week. He was down to a hundred bucks in the squirrel stash he kept hidden in the secret pocket sewn into the bottom of his backpack, and he was planning on giving that money to Mickey on Friday for rent, whether or not the idiot wanted to accept it.

It was the middle of the day, he could hear cars passing on the street outside and the other tenants in Mickey’s building shuffling around through the tissue paper-esque walls. He tried to take comfort in the fact that he wasn’t really alone, even if Mickey wasn’t at home.

“Fucking man up,” he muttered to himself from his seat on the couch. He’d been debating going outside for the last hour. Every time he tried to get up and walk to the door, he remembered feeling the sensation of someone’s eyes on his back, at that point between his shoulder blades, and froze.

He wouldn’t even be trying to leave, except he had to meet Lip.

Earlier that morning, he’d realize he had no idea what to do about Harriet Bell. The number for Chicago Harriet was disconnected, and the person who answered for Downers Grove Harriet didn’t know who the hell he was talking about when he asked about a young girl who might be missing. He was practically on the verge of going through every Facebook profile of a white girl named Harriet and send messages asking, “Excuse me, but were you brutally murdered recently?”

He was getting desperate. That was the only reason he called Lip.

His brother hadn’t picked up at first, so Ian had left a message. He’d been almost relieved that he didn’t have the chance to ask Lip for the favor, because asking for the favor meant telling him what was going on, and that sounded exhausting.

But then Lip had called back a few minutes later.

“Ian!” He’d sounded breathless. “Ian, everything okay?”

Ian rushed to reassure him, trying to be casual even though the anxiety of meeting Lip outside the house was making his blood pressure rise. “Yeah, I’m fine, it’s just. What are you doing today? Do you have a chance to meet up?”

Lip had been confused, but had said he only had one class so why not.

So Ian had no choice but to force himself to get up off the couch, and go to the door. It felt wrong inviting Lip to Mickey’s place, and he had promised to meet Lip at three o’clock, and it was already quarter til, so he didn’t have a choice. He opened the apartment door and headed down the stairs.

It got easier the longer he walked, the more people he passed. As long as he wasn’t alone on the street, he was okay. If he walked quicker than he normally would, that was his business. He felt too jumpy, like everyone was staring at him, and he tried desperately to chill out.

Lip was already waiting for him at their regular restaurant, at their regular corner in the back. He stood when he saw Ian, moving to meet him, grasping his upper arm.

“Ian, is everything okay?” Lip still sounded as worried as he had on the phone, and Ian felt instantly guilty.

He held onto Lip’s forearm that was holding his arm, trying to look normal. “I’m fine,” he insisted. “I wanted to talk to you about something. Ask you a favor.”

They sat down, and Lip looked at him expectantly. Ian was surprised by how good it felt sitting with his brother in that moment. Lip was an asshole, but he was familiar, and Ian felt significantly less jumpy sitting across from him right now.

That said, it was hard to know where to start.

“Um,” he started. “I think someone might be stalking me?” He didn’t mean for it to come out on a question, but faced with Lip’s worried look, he felt unsure that he should be making this huge burden Lip’s.

Lip’s gaze was immediately sharp. “Why do you think you’re being stalked, Ian?”

It was kind of like an out of body experience, hearing himself tell his brother how he’d found two bodies in the space of a month. He barely really noticed what he was saying, too distracted by the look of fury unwinding on Lip’s face.

When Ian got to the end, Lip was livid.

“We have to go to the fucking police,” Lip said suddenly. He was up and out of his chair so fast Ian barely had the chance to grab his sleeve.

“We really can’t do that,” Ian said, pulling Lip back.

Lip looked at him incredulously. “You fucking kidding me right now? My kid brother tells me some fucking lunatic is leaving dead bodies for him to find—”

“I don’t know that for sure, it’s just a theory—”

“—and you want me to just, what, say ‘Thanks for letting me know, Ian!’ and go to my goddamn physics lecture like it’s nothing?”

“No,” Ian said firmly. “I don’t want you to do that.”

Lip raised his eyebrows. “Then why are you holding onto my arm right now like you’re trying to keep me from going to war? Why can’t we go to the police?”

“Because the police don’t give a shit,” Ian said bitterly, but that wasn’t it, not really. Haltingly, he tried to explain what had happened with the cops, how he’d almost been arrested, how O’Reilly seemed desperate to pin anything on him, even with Detective Johnson and even freaking Tony trying to hold him back.

Lip sat back down as Ian spoke, and he looked like he was doing his best to absorb the information. Ian eventually went silent, and he looked down at the table cloth in front of him. He tugged idly at the sugar packets, stacking them into a tower. God, what a mess everything was right now.

When Lip leaned forward and wrapped a hand around Ian’s forearm he was completely surprised. Ian felt his eyes getting wet and he blinked hurriedly to clear them.

“What do you need me to do, man?” Lip asked.

And it was such a relief, because even though Ian had to grudgingly appreciate Mickey’s uncle and brother willingness to get involved, it was different having his own brother on his side.

“I need you to find someone for me. Her name is Harriet Bell.” He explained how Svetlana thought the first dead girl was probably Harriet, and that he hadn’t been able to find anything online.

Lip interrupted. “Let me guess: you just googled a bunch and then got on Facebook?” When he saw Ian glance away, he snorted a laugh. “Fucking amateur hour.”

“Also I checked Myspace,” Ian said defensively, but he didn’t bristle too much. That's why he called Lip, because Ian really didn’t know what he was doing.

And by contrast, Lip really did. As soon as Ian gave him everything he had, Lip was off, speaking enthusiastically about search engines he had access to as a student and some kid at the law library who owed him a favor. Ian found himself drifting. He thought of Fiona. He wondered if Lip had heard from her. He tried to tell himself it didn’t really matter, if Fiona hadn’t gotten in touch with him yet than she obviously didn’t want to, but then he found himself interrupting something Lip was saying about newspaper back-catalogues.

“Fiona’s back,” he said.

Lip stopped mid-word, Ian thought the word might have been “database.”

“What do you mean, Fiona’s back?” he repeated.

Ian shrugged. “I ran into Steve the other day,” he said. “He said him and Fiona split up, and her and Debbie don’t live in Michigan anymore.” Even seeing Lip’s blank expression, Ian had to ask: “Did you know?”

Lip shook his head. “No. Last time I talked to Debbie was…” He seemed to consider. “Shit. I guess a few months ago.” He frowned. “Jesus. I just lose track, you know? I’m a shitty brother.”

“Not any shittier than me,” Ian said. He didn’t add that he was confident that he was way worse. He didn’t even keep in touch with Debbie, just waiting for secondhand news from Lip. He didn’t like thinking about it.

Lip’s eyes went glassy in the way they did when he was thinking something over. Then he came back, and tapped the tabletop to get Ian’s attention.

“Hey,” he said. “You’ve got enough going on right now. You take care of you. I’ll see if I can figure out where Fiona’s at.”

“Fine,” Ian said. He was happy to leave Fiona to Lip, just like he was happy to give Harriet Bell to him to. He’d forgotten how easy it was to rely on his brother, turn things over to his purview. It felt dangerous, how reflexive it was to fall back into that pattern again.

Lip was tapping his foot anxiously. “I mean, I’m happy to do research for you man, but what I really want is to go out and fucking terminate whoever’s doing this to you.”

“And to the girls,” Ian added, because while he was scared, those girls were dead. He couldn’t get that heavy, nonspecific survivor’s guilt out of his mind.

“And them,” Lip amended, but he shook his head. “But they’re not you, man. I’m most worried about you.” He frowned mutinously. “I really just want to go out and bust some skulls.”

Unintentionally, Ian let out a loud, barking laugh. Lip gave him a weird look. Ian waved a hand. “No, it’s nothing. It’s just, you sound like Mickey.”

“Who the fuck is Mickey?” Lip asked suspiciously.

Ian hesitated. He had a feeling Lip would probably remember Mickey from the old neighborhood if he gave him half a chance, and he had a feeling it probably wouldn’t be the best impression. “He’s a friend.”

“And he knows about all this?”

“Yes. He’s letting me crash with him,” Ian said carefully.

Lip looked at him for a minute, like he could see something on Ian’s face even though Ian was doing his best to keep his face expressionless. Fucking siblings and their fucking Klingon mind-reading, Ian thought irritably.

“Well, if your totally-platonic-I’m-sure friend Mickey is willing to kick ass on your behalf, I guess you could have worse roommates,” Lip said after a while.

“He thinks we should start with like, people who might have it out for me or something,” Ian said. He wanted Lip to tell him that was a stupid idea and the cool-eyed research was a better angle, but Lip sat back, crossing his arms.

“I think that’s a solid plan,” he said, and then he was off on that tangent, detailing where he thought they should start. Oddly enough, he echoed a lot of what Ronnie had said, and as he listed off people from their collective pasts Ian should talk to, Ian decided he had to reluctantly admit maybe Ronnie and Mickey had been right all along.

Eventually, Lip started getting ready to leave. He left some cash on the table for the check and stood up.

“I have to get to class, but do you want me to walk you home?” he asked. Ian tilted his head in question, and Lip shrugged. “I don’t know, I’d be pretty fucking shaken up if this was happening to me.” He smirked a little. “But then, you were always a hell of a lot braver than I was, I guess.”

Lip was grinning, and to Ian’s surprise, he found himself smiling back, immeasurably calmer than he’d been just an hour earlier.

“That’s okay,” Ian said after a minute. He didn’t feel as out of control anymore. He’d be fine walking home. Impulsively, he reached over and hugged Lip hard and quick, letting go almost before Lip had a chance to hug back. “Thanks, though. I mean it.”

Lip reached out to punch Ian on the shoulder. “When have I ever let you down?” he said.

 

****

 

When Mickey burst into the apartment, Ian was spread-eagled on the couch, his long legs hanging over the side. At the slam of the door, he tilted his head back so he was looking at Mickey upside down over the arm of the couch.

“Hey,” he called out.

“I need to give you a blowjob,” Mickey said bluntly.

Ian, to his credit, didn’t completely let his reaction get away from him. He definitely flailed a little, the computer bobbing in his lap, and his eyes went wide like flying saucers, but he kept his mouth shut. Waiting, Mickey guessed, for some kind of explanation.

“Don’t make a big deal about it or anything,” he said hurriedly, waving his hand in a way he hoped said pfft, explanations, who needs ‘em? and stepped closer to the couch. “I just need you to let me give you a blowjob.” He paused. “Please.”

Slowly, Ian righted himself from his sprawl across the sofa. “Well,” he said, equally slowly, “I was going to say, ‘What the fuck is going on, Mickey?’ but then, you did say please, so I guess, following The Law Of Good Manners, I’m kind of obligated here.”

Mickey groaned impatiently. “Okay, yeah, you’re hilarious, would you take your pants off please?” He gestured vaguely in the direction of Ian’s crotch. “We’re losing daylight, here.”

Ian set the computer under the couch and sat with his elbows on his knees. He cocked his head, studying Mickey. “What’s going on, man? Is everything okay?”

“Everything is fine,” he bit out. He closed his eyes, trying to get it together. He looked at Ian, who looked concerned, so he repeated himself. “Everything is fine, I just need your fucking consent or whatever to suck your dick, is that okay?”

Mickey felt himself blushing but made himself stare at Ian anyway, because he didn’t have time to be embarrassed, he had to prove Mandy wrong, and Ian looked so goddamn beautiful sitting on his couch, watching Mickey like he was looking at something fascinating.

He felt filled with this sense of stubborn determination, but also need, and it was making him hard.

A corner of Ian’s mouth twitched, and Mickey pointed threateningly at him. “If you laugh at me, I swear to god.”

“I’m not laughing at you!” Ian said. While laughing, the son of bitch. He smiled and reached a hand out, like he couldn’t help it. “I swear, I’m not! It’s just, you’re really cute sometimes.”

Mickey was sure his whole body was red at this point. He took a halting step forward. Ian gestured him closer and Mickey sat on the couch beside him, a little stiffly. Ian wrapped a careful arm around his shoulder to draw him closer, which somehow made Mickey’s muscles relax slightly. He made no move to shove Mickey’s head down to his crotch, though.

“What, don’t you want to?” Mickey asked. He hated the soft, unsure sound of his own voice.

“Well yeah, sure. Of course I want you to,” Ian said. He studied Mickey. “Are you sure you want to?”

“Jesus! Yes, I do, I really do, do I have to fucking write it out and get it notarized—”

Ian cut off his diatribe with his mouth, pulling Mickey down with a tug on his shirt. Mickey let him, he loved the way Ian tasted, the way he felt pressed against Mickey. He wound his arms around his neck and gave himself up to way Ian twisted his tongue in Mickey’s mouth, like he couldn’t get enough.

It was easy to get distracted by kissing Ian and the way it felt being wrapped up in his arms, but Mickey made himself pull back a little. He stared into Ian’s eyes.

“I really want to,” Mickey told him. Ian waited, and then he seemed to see something in Mickey’s face that made him relax. He cupped the back of Mickey’s neck, rubbing a little, and pulled away.

Ian grabbed a worn-out cushion from the couch and tossed it on the carpet at his feet. “It can be hell on your knees,” he explained, sounding apologetic.

Mickey’s hands were sweating but he slid to the ground anyway. Ian went to undo his jeans but Mickey slapped his hands away. Ian jerked at the loud sound of the smack and Mickey was a little fascinated that he could see Ian get harder beneath his jeans.

Trying to ignore the way his hands were shaking, Mickey unbuttoned Ian’s jeans with minimal struggle and went for the zipper. When Ian’s cock appeared, Mickey couldn’t look away. It was long and red, slightly bigger than Mickey’s if he had to eyeball it, curved slightly to the right with a thick vein running along the bottom.

Mickey’s mouth started to water, which surprised him almost as much the first sight of Ian’s cock.

He looked Ian’s dick in the eye, hesitating, then glanced at Ian. Ian was watching him in total absorption, his hands fisted on the couch, his eyes dilated. He was totally still, like he was in suspended animation waiting for Mickey to make a move.

Swallowing, Mickey wrapped both hands around the shaft. Ian jerked a little, breath coming heavier through his nose. Trying to picture how he would touch himself, Mickey twisted his wrists, moving up and down on Ian’s dick in a jerky rhythm, tightening his grip and making Ian gasp.

“Jesus, Mickey,” he was mumbling, over and over. No surprise, Ian was a talker, and as he arched and moved as Mickey started stroking faster, he never stopped chattering, swearing and saying Mickey’s name, telling him how good he felt, and Mickey was so into it, his own cock hardening and pressing almost painfully against the zipper of his jeans.

But he wasn’t here for this, he reminded himself. He had bigger plans.

Licking his lips, he opened his mouth and went for it.

Fuck Mandy, he wasn’t afraid, she didn’t know what she was talking about anyway, and also, what the hell was a Mandy? All coherent thought more or less vacated Mickey’s brain when he wrapped his lips around the head of Ian’s cock, intrigued by how wide it was and the way it split his lips, Ian letting out a shaky, surprised moan as Mickey experimented with running his tongue along the slit at the top.

He tested how deep he could take Ian in and had to back off, gagging a little.

Ian reached out and threaded both his hands through Mickey’s hair, not pushing his head or anything, just holding him. “Try, like, relaxing your jaw,” he offered.

Mickey raised an eyebrow but tried again. He still couldn’t take him very far, but he was too distracted by the taste and the feel and the sounds Ian was making to really worry about it. He tried bobbing his head, and Ian bit out, “Fuck,” so Mickey kept doing it.

Things were getting sloppy now, there was spit and pre-come dripping down Mickey’s chin, he was a little taken aback by the sounds of it all, the slurping and sucking loud in the room alongside Ian’s murmurs, but he was more than a little swept away with it all, he was so hard it hurt, but he never wanted to stop doing this, they should be doing this all the time, and almost on instinct he reached out to grab Ian’s hand, threading their fingers together just because he wanted the connection.

Ian came like a shot, moaning and panting and the sounds were enough that Mickey almost didn’t mind the sudden burst of come in his mouth. It still made him jerk back in surprise.

Mickey sat up, and after thinking eh, might as well, swallowed it, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth.

They stared at each other, red-faced and panting, both equally wide-eyed, and then Mickey couldn’t help it. He started to laugh. The look on Ian’s face, so fucking surprised, was just too hilarious.

After a second, Ian joined in, until they were both giggling helplessly like little kids.

“Fuck, I’m really sorry, I should've warned you,” Ian said when he finally began to catch his breath, grinning as he lay boneless against the couch. “I usually last longer than that, but fuck.”

Mickey shrugged one shoulder weakly, because he literally had no frame of reference for what the normal length of a blowjob was. All he really knew was that it made something hot unfurl in his belly at the thought that he could make Ian lose control like that, even a little.

Ian reached forward, his eyes soft, cradling one hand against Mickey’s cheek with his thumb on his cheekbone, and the other wrapping around Mickey’s chest just under his armpit, like he was trying to lift him up and pull him into Ian’s lap, even though Ian’s arms still shook slightly.

Mickey went with the movement, feeling suddenly shy as he got up to settle beside Ian on the couch, so close his bent knees were mostly in Ian’s lap.

Ian swooped forward and kissed Mickey lazily, like he wanted to taste himself on his lips. Mickey’s heart was still pounding and he leaned into it, deepening the kiss.

Ian brought his hand rest on Mickey’s thigh, pulling away so his forehead was pressed to Mickey’s temple. “Do you want me to,” Ian said, swallowing, eyes on Mickey’s clearly visible boner, “return the favor?”

“Um,” Mickey hesitated. He honestly wasn’t sure. The triumph from his first successful blowjob was wearing off a little, and even though he was hard and aching, he still felt the familiar hesitation creep into his mind.

“It’s totally okay, I don’t have to,” Ian said, drawing back, but that wasn’t what Mickey wanted either. He looped an arm around Ian’s neck, pulling him closer again.

“No, it’s not that, I just—”

Mickey was interrupted by a series of three hard knocks at the door that startled them both.

“Shit!” Mickey yelped, and flailed out of Ian’s lap, lying on the ground.

“So elegant,” Ian said on a laugh. “It’s like watching a ballet.”

Mickey flipped him off, standing to run a hand through his hair and button up his shirt as Ian tucked himself back in his pants, smiling like he was enjoying Mickey’s frantic attempts to make it look like he hadn’t just given a blowjob.

He gave up and looked at Ian. His lips were puffy and swollen, and his neck was still flushed, his hair a mess from Mickey tugging on it. He smiled lazily at Mickey. He looked disheveled as all hell and fucking edible, and Mickey felt his dick twitch. He considered just ignoring the door and going back to Ian, when the knocking resumed, more insistent this time, and Mickey swore.

“Fuck, keep your shirt on!” he hollered to whoever it was, ignoring Ian’s chuckle.

He opened the door to Colin holding a six pack and tapping his foot impatiently.

Well, that took care of Mickey’s hard on, at least.

“Yo, is it on?” Colin was shouldering past Mickey into the room before he had a chance to protest. “You’re shirt’s buttoned weird, by the way,” he threw over his shoulder.

Mickey cursed, going to redo the hastily done buttons. “Is what on?” he asked at the same time, bewildered.

Colin, who was already turning on the TV and messing with the controller, gave him a look. “Dude, we talked about this,” Colin insisted.

“We definitely did not…talk about this,” Mickey trailed off, trying to remember, and maybe they had talked about this. He had a vague recall of a text message from the day before, but his head had been so filled with IanIanIan lately, and everything else fucked up that was happening, it had totally slipped his mind.

“Mickey, it’s the season finale," Colin said, like Mickey was slow. He threw himself down on the couch, sparing Ian a glance. He didn’t seem to take in Ian’s rumpled appearance either. “Sup, dude.”

"The season finale of what?” Ian asked.

"Oh, god,” Mickey groaned. He sat on Ian’s other side, trying not to focus too much about how he was pressed tight to Ian’s side. “Please, Colin. No.”

“I told you, my cable’s busted and I can’t record it at Ronnie’s, he doesn’t have a DVR.” Colin made a prosaic face, like his hands were tied and what did Mickey want him to do

"Again I ask, the season finale of what?” Ian repeated.

"Colin’s fucking soap."

"Days Of Our Lives is not ‘just a fucking soap’, and don’t act like you didn’t watch it all the time with me when we still lived at Dad’s,” Colin said dismissively. He was flipping through the channels until stopped on the soft-focus, glossy production value of the soap opera that had haunted Mickey’s early adolescence.

"I didn’t watch it, I was fucking outnumbered,” he grumbled. Colin waved a hand at him, but didn’t break focus from the show. The opening intro was just wrapping up.

"Just in time!” Colin crowed. Mickey settled in, resigned. It was the season finale, after all.

Ian looked between the two of them, like he was waiting for the punchline. Mickey fucking wished it was a joke. “What is it with your family and weird TV show obsessions?” Ian asked finally.

“Excuse you,” Colin cut in. “Days Of Our Lives is not weird, it is a national goddamn treasure. Also, don’t compare my thing to Mickey’s weird geek show."

"Jeopardy is not a geek show,” Mickey argued.

Colin jerked his chin at Ian, eyes still glued to the screen. “You,” he polled Ian, “is it, or is it not, a geek show?"

Ian smiled at Mickey a little apologetically. “It’s…a little nerdy,” he conceded.

Mickey knocked into him with his shoulder. “Fucking traitor."

"Hey, no funny business, my program is on,” Colin said, reaching out to smack at them like a dad on a road trip trying to discipline the kids in the back seat.

Mickey went still, caught by Colin’s wording. First Ronnie this morning, and then freaking Mandy at the freaking Laundromat, and now Colin, who was almost biologically incapable of subtlety. It was kind of a shock, realizing you were the most fucking obvious person in the world about something you’d always considered to be your deepest, darkest secret.

Trying not to let his mind race too much, he settled in to watch what the Hortons and the Bradys got up to this week. Just like with Jeopardy, Ian eventually started commenting on the action on screen, making fun of the actors even as Colin reached out to swat at him, telling him to shut the fuck up. Ian just laughed and pressed his bare foot up against Mickey’s. Mickey began to relax.

When the episode ended, Colin threw his head back in satisfaction. “That was so good,” he said. He was silent for a minute, reflecting on the Days Of Our Lives drama, no doubt. After a while, he looked at Ian and Mickey. “You assholes thought any more about what Uncle Ronnie was saying before?”

"Operation: Busting Skulls, you mean?” Ian said dryly.

Colin grinned. “That’s a good code name,” he said.

Ian grinned, but then he looked down, his face going guarded. “Well, I was talking to my brother about it today, actually."

“You saw Lip today?” Mickey asked, surprised. He hadn’t known Ian had even left the house.

“Can’t stay locked up like a princess in a tower all day, you know? Needed to fucking man up,” Ian said. He sounded derisive, like the idea that he might be a little skittish about going out alone after everything was stupid.

Mickey frowned, but he decided to leave that for later. “What did Lip say?”

“Well, he said he’d look up information on Harriet Bell for me, since I’ve come up with basically dick so far. And he thinks if we’re going to start looking at people with connection to me, we should start with Kash.”

Colin raised an eyebrow. “Kash? You mean that towelhead who runs that shitty corner store?”

“He was my old boss, when I worked at the store,” Ian said. He looked away from Mickey, and Mickey frowned harder. He didn’t like the fucking sound of that.

“I can give you guys a ride,” Colin offered. When he saw Mickey’s face, he shrugged. “Ronnie’s right, you now. If it’s your problem, it’s our problem too.” He paused carefully. “And his problems are your problems now, right?”

He wondered if Colin was maybe acting as Ronnie’s mole, but he doubted it. Ronnie would never press about personal stuff, and the status of Mickey’s live-in friend probably sailed right off the cliff of said personal stuff. So this was probably all Colin, the goddamn busybody.

“If you want to give us a ride, that’d be cool,” Mickey said firmly, pointedly ignoring the attempt to pry. He looked at Ian.

"That’s fine with me,” Ian said lightly, but he was biting his lip hard again. Mickey didn’t know what else to do. He pressed closer to his side, hoping that was enough.

 

****

 

Ian decided it was definitely weird driving through the old neighborhood, sitting in the back of Colin’s beat-up Buick.

He hadn’t been back on the block in over a year, and then it had only been morbid curiosity. He’d been meeting a trick nearby and thought he’d just stroll down the street for old time’s sake afterward. He’d felt like a tourist of his own life, walking past houses he used to recognize, parks he used to hang out at.

If it was weird then, it was even weirder now, heading back to the neighborhood to solve a crime like they were on Scooby Doo. Ian felt a little overwhelmed by the gravity of what they were trying to do, not even the Mickey and Colin's bickering in the front seat enough to distract him.

Colin pulled up in front of the Kash N Grab, parking carelessly in the bus lane.

“You need me to come in with you?” He cracked his knuckles. Ian raised an eyebrow, and Mickey rolled his eyes.

“Thanks, but I think we’re good, tough guy,” Mickey said. “Just wait here, yeah?”

Mickey got out of the front seat and, not seeing any other option, Ian followed him.

As he stood next to Mickey on the street, looking at the familiar signage of the Kash N Grab, he couldn’t help but feel skeptical.

“So what, we just go in and start roughing him up?”

Mickey gave him a sarcastic look. “We could do that. Or, you know, we could be a little more subtle. Your call.”

“Oh, you’re Mr. Subtle now, my bad,” Ian said, elbowing Mickey. Mickey grabbed his arm.

“Fuck you,” he said, but he sounded distracted. “Ian, I’m serious. I just want to get a feel for the guy, see if he seems off. If he does, then me and Colin can bring the heat or whatever. But let’s just talk to the guy first.”

“Okay, if you think that’s gonna do anything,” Ian said. He couldn’t help how doubtful he sounded. Every memory he had of Kash was of a dopey guy who had been head over heels for Ian. It seemed like a stretch to remember him ever being violent. He’d always been obsessively, almost irritatingly gentle with Ian

Mickey tugged on his arm, bringing him back to the task at hand. “Look, if Lip thought we start here, then let’s start here.”

It was like stepping back in time, opening the door to the store and hearing the electric bell chime over his head. The store was empty, but as Ian scanned the aisles, he saw a dark head pop up over by the cereal. Kash straightened, carrying a box of fruit.

Kash looked thinner than the last time Ian had seen him, and older. Well, of course he looked older, two years had passed, but there was something about his face that looked wearier than Ian remembered.

When Kash looked up and saw Ian, he lost his grip on the box of grapefruits he was carrying and stumbled, trying to steady the load in his arms.

Without thinking about it, Ian rushed forward, moving to grab the other end of the box.

“Ian,” Kash said softly. He looked astonished.

“Hey, Kash,” Ian said back. He took the box of grapefruits from Kash, and Kash let him, watching as Ian set the fruit next to the other boxes in the display.

“It’s really good to see you,” Kash said. He swallowed, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. “You look really good.”

He recognized the beginnings of the same flustered, starry-eyed affection in Kash’s eyes, faint but still there, even underneath the tired lines of the other man’s face. It felt familiar, being stared at like that. At the time, two years ago, it had been a rush, that kind of ragged devotion. Now his memories of it were more numbed, and being on the receiving end of it in this moment, he felt embarrassed.

“How have you been?” Kash asked softly. “It’s been, wow. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

“Almost two years, I think, yeah,” Ian said, laughing. Kash was staring at his mouth, and Ian grinned a little.

“Man. That long,” he said. He sounded a little wistful.

Ian was hit with a wave of ridiculousness. The thought of grilling Kash, asking him if he happened to be into mutilating young girls lately, was so laughable that Ian couldn’t help but shake his head. This was a dumb idea.

He’d almost forgotten about Mickey at his side, caught up in his disbelief at the situation, but then Mickey stepped forward, nudging against Ian with his hip.

Kash seemed to notice Mickey for the first time too. He frowned.

“Aren’t you Terry Milkovich’s kid?” he asked, confused.

“Aren’t you that fucking pussy I used to steal chip dip and gum from?” Mickey shot back.

Kash was looking between Ian and Mickey trying to find the connection. Mickey seemed to be doing the same thing, cocking his head to the side as he studied Kash.

“So you haven’t seen Ian in two years, huh?” he asked.

Kash raised his eyebrows, his eyes going a little wide. “Um, no. I guess not. I kind of can’t believe it’s been that long, actually,” he said. He glanced back at Ian, looking at his feet then back up in that bashful way Ian recognized. “Can you believe it? Feels like just the other day you used to work here.”

Ian shrugged. If he was being honest, it felt like years and years and years ago, but he had a feeling it wouldn’t do any good to alienate Kash right now.

“How’s Linda and the kids?” he asked instead. Kash opened his mouth to answer, but Mickey cut in.

“And you haven’t been trying to get in touch with Ian or anything?” he asked. “Maybe trying to get his attention?”

Kash seemed honestly perplexed. “I thought about calling a few times, I guess.” His hand returned to the back of his neck, rubbing idly. “But you said not to call, so I tried not to,” he told Ian. “It didn’t seem right, I guess.”

“What a hero,” Mickey said, scoffing a little. He stepped forward, invading Kash’s space. “Hate to do something that wasn’t right, huh?”

“Is there some kind of problem here?” Kash asked.

“You tell me, asshole,” Mickey snapped. If this was Mickey playing it cool, Ian wasn’t impressed, but before he could interject, Mickey reached forward and shoved at Kash’s shoulder. “You’ve been trying to send him some kind of message?”

That tiredness Ian had noticed on Kash’s face was shifting into rigidity. He didn’t back down as Mickey stepped forward. He was a good head taller than Mickey as he looked down at him, a little impassive.

“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” he said coldly.

"Mick, this is dumb, we should just go,” Ian said. He tugged at Mickey’s sleeve, but Mickey ignored him.

“Sweet kid, huh?” Mickey said, gesturing with his chin at Ian behind him. “I like ‘em sweet."

Ian was irritated at the way Mickey was talking about him like he wasn’t there and was about to tell him to knock it off, but he was distracted by Kash’s face for a moment.

He was hit with the odd sensation of looking at someone he thought he knew, and suddenly realizing now, he was looking at a stranger.

Kash’s face was read and his hands were twitching at his sides, but it was his eyes that caught Ian. It was like they were on fire as he glared down at Mickey.

Who was still goading Kash like it was his job. “But then, so do you, right?” he was saying.

Kash snapped. He grabbed twin handfuls of Mickey’s shirt and shoved him away. Mickey laughed, like he’d been waiting for Kash to crack the whole time.

“Get the hell out of my store,” Kash thundered, shoving Mickey again. Mickey bounced back, getting as up in Kash’s face as he could manager with his height.

“You stay the fuck away from him,” he said. Ian was startled by the disgust in Mickey’s voice. “I see your goddamn face anywhere outside this neighborhood and me and my brothers and my uncle are gonna come down on you like a ton of bricks.”

There was a long silence as Mickey and Kash stared at each other, Ian’s hand still gripping Mickey’s sleeve.

“Get out,” Kash said again.

Ian pulled Mickey’s sleeve. “Mick, let’s go,” he said.

Finally, Mickey stepped away. He smiled at Kash, the expression wide and grim, then spun around stalked out of the store, dragging Ian behind him. Kash didn’t say goodbye to Ian, and Ian got one last look at Kash, at the hard anger on his face, before he followed Mickey out the door.

“What the hell was that back there?” Ian burst out as they stepped out front. He saw Colin’s car idling around the block and headed toward it, Mickey on his heels.

“Don’t,” Mickey said, his voice low.

“Don’t what? Don’t tell you that you were out of control in there? What was the plan, Mick? Was there even a plan?” Ian demanded. Adrenaline was making him feel panicky.

Don’t, Ian,” Mickey said again, his voice sharper than before.

Before they reached Colin’s car, Mickey reached out and grabbed Ian’s arm, stopping him. He was breathing hard, glaring at the ground, the hand not holding onto Ian clenched into a fist.

Ian was a little caught off-guard by Mickey’s anger. Sure, it was probably weird talking to an old boyfriend of Ian’s when they were more or less shacking up together, but he couldn’t really get a read on what Mickey was thinking right now.

“I’m not interested in Kash anymore or anything, if that’s what this is about,” he said cautiously.

“What, you think I’m jealous of that creepy loser in there?” Mickey demanded, sounding flabbergasted at the suggestion.

“Well, I mean, if you were, I just want you to know there’s no reason to be, Kash was years ago,” Ian added.

Mickey stared at him incredulously. “I’m not jealous of Kash, asshole,” he said.

Then maybe he was just suspicious of Kash or something, that he had been stalking Ian. “I really don’t think he’s involved with what’s going on, Mick,” Ian insisted.

Mickey clenched his hands in the air in a frustrated gesture, seeming to force himself to relax as he turned back Ian, holding up on finger. “Okay, first of all, you don’t know that, this is preliminary skull bashing recon, that fucker’s still on the list,” he said, and held up another finger, “and second of all, fuck, Ian, you think the only reason I’d be mad right now is because I’m jealous that you’ve dated other people?”

Ian raised his eyebrows, waiting, feeling completely at sea. Mickey seemed immeasurably more frustrated by Ian’s inability to understand. His eyes were wide, nearly leaping out of his face.

“I’m mad because you were a kid, Ian! You were a goddamn kid and that guy in there, that fucking pedophile, he fucking roped you in—"

“He didn’t rope me in, come on, don’t be dramatic,” Ian tried to interrupt, but Mickey didn’t seem to want to hear it.

“He was your fucking boss, jesus, would you listen to yourself?” Mickey swallowed, visibly struggling to calm down. He lowered his voice slightly. “I’m angry because nobody protected you, not your brother, nobody.”

It sounded like Mickey wasn’t really mad at Lip, though. If Ian didn’t know better, he’d think it almost seemed like Mickey was angry at himself.

“Mick, you didn’t know me then. Not really,” Ian said quietly. “There was nothing you could’ve done.”

“I didn’t say it makes fucking sense,” Mickey muttered, tugging on his hair absently.

Ian took a step closer, daring to rest a hand on Mickey’s shoulder. “Mick, it’s okay. I’m fine.”

Mickey looked up at him. His eyes seemed bleak. “Are you, man? Are you really fine?” he demanded. Before Ian could answer, he was looking away again, running his hand through his hair in frustration. “And I can’t do shit to protect you now, either.”

Ian didn’t know what to say. His default was to argue that Mickey didn’t need to protect him, that he didn’t need anyone to protect him. But Mickey wasn’t anyone. And he wanted to take care of Mickey too.

He squeezed Mickey’s shoulder. “For what it’s worth, I wish I’d been able to protect you back then, too,” Ian said. Mickey didn’t look at him, but he did lean into the pressure of Ian’s hand.

He watched as Mickey calmed down, his breathing steadying. Finally, he sighed. “Yeah, I know,” he said. He glanced at Colin’s car on the corner, where Colin was leaning over the dashboard, watching them avidly. “Let’s go before he gets fucking popcorn or something.”

Ian didn’t take his hand off Mickey’s shoulder as they walked. It wasn’t until they slide into Colin’s car that he took it away, where he could still feel the heat from Mickey’s body on his hand.

Chapter Text

Mickey was awake, but he didn’t open his eyes at first. Instead, he swept a hand blindly in front of him across the bed. Hazily, he wondered when he’d become so comfortable sleeping with someone else (who was he fucking kidding, sleeping with Ian) that his first instinct, even before opening his eyes, was reaching to make contact.

He didn’t feel anyone beside him though, and he opened his eyes. The space where Ian had been curled was rumpled but empty.

It was a weird double-life they were leading, Mickey reflected, that their days and nights could be like quiet bookends around whole days that were increasingly going off the rails. Just thinking about talking to Kash the other day, or that fucking Steve in the weeks before, and all the macabre horror in between, made the quiet peacefulness Mickey felt this morning all the more bizarre.

After a little bit Ian stuck his head back in the doorway. “Morning,” he said. He smiled shyly. “I made breakfast.”

Mickey felt a companion smile cross his face that could only be described as goobery. “Bullshit you made breakfast.”

Ian stepped more fully into the doorway, revealing a plate in his hand. “For real.” He walked to the bed, climbing up and walking on his knees to Mickey’s side. Mickey’s mouth went a little dry, watching Ian move, dressed only in boxers, the way he kept his eyes so intently on Mickey’s face. “Ta da!” He held the plate in front of Mickey’s face, waggling the fingers of his free hand beside it.

“It’s a feast,” Mickey said, eyeing the pop tarts with a smirk.

“Well, not all of us can make elaborate omelets with free-range eggs and heirloom tomatoes, so shut up and eat your processed sugar,” Ian said, laughing.

Mickey shrugged and took a pop tart off the plate and bit in, relishing the burst of artificial sweetener on his tongue. That shit was good, no doubt. Ian watched him eat and nodded in satisfaction, biting into his own pastry.

“Do you want to talk about Operation: Busting Skulls?” Mickey asked after a minute through a mouthful of pop tart. “Like who’s still on the list and stuff?”

Ian seemed to consider. “No,” he said thoughtfully. “Later, but not now. Can we just, chill?” He sounded so hopeful, and Mickey wasn’t made of goddamn stone. Not to mention the thought of discussing any of the apparent stable of older men that had taken advantage of Ian over the years made Mickey want to go out kill someone. Preferably all those older assholes.

He chewed on his lip for a second, then darted out and pressed a kiss to Ian’s cheek. “Yeah, we can chill for now.”

Ian beamed at him and snuggled closer. Mickey grumbled but let Ian maneuver him into a reclining position, cuddled against Ian’s naked chest so their faces were inches apart.

These were moments Mickey was slowly coming to crave in a way he never expected. Quiet, sleepy moments in the morning or right before they both drifted off to sleep, when they were close enough to whisper to one another and Mickey could stare at every corner of Ian’s face at his leisure.

As he chewed his pop tart, Ian reached out and combed his fingers through Mickey’s hair, swooping one thumb down to smooth across an eyebrow, and Mickey had to curl his toes to resist pressing up into the gentle pressure like a cat.

He settled for tracing the sharp shape of Ian’s collarbone with his fingertips. “Feels good,” he mumbled, swallowing the last of his pop tart and tilting his head back a little to give Ian better access.

He could actually see Ian’s eyes heat. He leaned in to kiss Mickey, but at the last second Mickey jerked back, bringing a hand to cover his mouth. “Wait, man. Because I care about you, I can’t let you do that. I’m pretty sure my mouth tastes like a dirty foot right now.”

A corner of Ian’s mouth lifted. “You care about me?”

Mickey rolled his eyes. “Focus, weirdo. I’m just saying, I’m a mouth breather. Mornings are not my freshest time, orally.”

Ian pressed his lips together, his shoulders shaking a little. “There’s just,” he managed, “so many jokes I could go for there, I’m honestly a little overwhelmed.” Mickey shoved him lightly in the shoulder and Ian caught his hand, pressing his thumb into the palm and rubbing a circle. He sobered, pressing closer again. “I don’t care how you taste.”

As much as Mickey was tempted, he was still a human being and Ian was going to have to wait to stick his tongue in there. He squirmed away to stand by the bed, holding up a hand apologetically at Ian’s huff. “Don’t be a baby. I’m doing this for you, man.”

“Hurry up!” Ian shouted after him, and Mickey saluted.

In the bathroom, Mickey executed the fastest brush of his tooth-having career, and paused to look in the mirror. The boy looking back at him was bright-eyed, his color high. He looked happy, and so young. Mickey didn’t really recognize him.

He hurried back to Ian again, who was sprawled like a starfish across the bed, his left arm and leg dangling half off the mattress. Mickey stood above him for a minute, just drinking him in. It was surreal, thinking he had Ian so firmly in his life now, wedged into every little corner until he could almost forget that things had been very different just a over a month ago.

Ian was staring at him now too, a flush climbing up his chest, and Mickey settled beside him, sitting somewhat awkwardly on the mattress. Ian looped both arms around his waist and pulled him down so he was half-laying on top of him, Mickey squawking a little at the manhandling. Ian quieted him with a kiss, his mouth minty. It deepened quickly, Ian’s tongue sweeping behind Mickey’s teeth, Mickey sucking on Ian’s bottom lip, both their hands roaming almost frantically over the other’s body.

Unsurprisingly, Ian’s hands wandered lower, under Mickey’s boxers, until he had two handfuls of Mickey’s ass and was kneading jerkily. Mickey moaned, arching into the contact.

Ian’s fingers spread wider, and Mickey felt a sudden dry swipe over his hole that made him jerk in surprise.

Ian pulled back immediately, searching Mickey’s face. Mickey knew he was probably red-faced like he was dying, but Ian was hard and still thrusting lightly against Mickey’s hip, so he must not look too terrible. Slowly, Ian pressed his finger back against Mickey’s hole lightly, his eyes on Mickey’s face. “Is that okay?”

Mickey wanted to nod, say yes, anything, but he felt like the air had whooshed out of his lungs all at once. He’d been incorporating some light penetration into his jerkoff regimen lately, and had decided he definitely recommended it. And he bet it would be even better if Ian did it, but he needed to get his dumb mouth to work first over the hammering of his heart.

Ian stroked him again and Mickey made a low sound. “Is this okay?” Ian repeated. He sounded breathless too. He smeared a kiss onto Mickey’s mouth, pulling back only slightly. “Mickey, talk to me.”

“Ungh,” Mickey bit out. Ian’s finger was circling his rim now and his brain felt like it was going off line. When Ian’s hand stilled, Mickey panicked. He jerked his head in a clumsy nod. “Yeah, it’s okay. It’s okay.” He was mumbling, his eyes sliding half-shut, but Ian smiled as he leaned in to kiss him again, resuming the pressure against Mickey’s ass.

After a minute, when Mickey was starting to pant like a wild animal, Ian pulled away, Mickey chasing after him at first before, but Ian held him back, huffing out a laugh. “Hold on, let me get something.”

Ian leaned over the bed to where he’d set his backpack down the night before, sticking one hand deep inside and emerging with a small plastic bottle. He scooted closer to Mickey again, wrapping his arms around him and squeezing a little, the secure pressure making Mickey shiver. He felt nervous, but also excited, a strange combination like he was about to go exploring. What he felt most all was, for once, the absence of fear, which felt like a miracle on its own.

Behind Mickey's back where Ian's hands rested, he heard Ian unsnap the bottle and squirt what he assumed was lube onto his fingers, but Mickey was a little distracted as Ian began kissing him again, everything growing more desperate and sloppy.

When he brought his finger to Mickey’s hole again, it was slick and Ian pressed a little harder so just the tip slipped inside. Mickey gasped loudly against Ian’s mouth.

“Are you okay?” Ian asked, barely moving his mouth away long enough to speak before swooping in again, his finger picking up a shallow, thrusting rhythm inside Mickey that made it feel like all the blood in his body was rushing immediately to his cock. “Tell me you’re okay, please Mick, tell me.”

“I’m huuh fine, I’m fucking fine,” he managed to groan, but it was tough, he was so out of breath and his entire body was throbbing, he didn’t know sex could be like this, was this sex they were having, was Ian going to fuck him? Did he want Ian to fuck him? The frantic pace of his thoughts slowed and went white, though, when Ian crooked his finger inside Mickey and reached to wrap a hand around his cock through the slit in his boxers at the same time.

“You’re so beautiful like this,” Ian muttered against his mouth, and usually Mickey would scoff and shove him away, but at the moment he felt out of control of his own limbs, the sensation of Ian’s hands on his cock almost too much and his finger, now two fingers, fuck it burned a little but it also made Mickey’s whole body tingle, all of that made it impossible to do anything but arch his back, thrust into the feeling, bury his face in Ian’s neck and breath in the sweaty, sweet, sharp smell of Ian.

Ian was chattering away by Mickey’s head, telling Mickey he was good and so tight and again how beautiful he was, then he was just swearing, and then he twisted his wrist in some crazy, skillful figure-eight pattern on Mickey cock, and Mickey felt like he was dying. There were tears in his eyes, he thought he could hear himself moaning, and Ian’s fingers pressed a little deeper inside him, the angle changed slightly, and he was nudging directly against Mickey’s prostate.

Mickey came with a choked-sounding sob, his vision going wobbly at the edges. It seemed to last forever. Ian pulled free of Mickey and rubbed soothing circles on his back with the heel of his hand, his other milking the last of Mickey’s orgasm free until Mickey fell limp and fishlike onto the mattress.

Ian kissed his temple, his forehead, his chin, then latched on to the skin below his collarbone, sucking hard as he moved to stroke himself off. Dazedly, Mickey brought a hand up to tangle in Ian’s hair, murmuring softly, and the action seemed to electrify Ian. A few desperate thrusts later and he was coming on Mickey’s stomach, adding to the sticky mess.

Ian collapsed beside him, falling so his nose was almost pressed to Mickey’s forehead. As he began to come down, Mickey felt his face flush with a different kind of blush, and he looked away, feeling the way Ian nuzzled against Mickey’s forehead tiredly. Ian wiped his hand free of spunk and used it to cup Mickey’s chin, urging him to look Ian in the eye.

Ian was smiling, and now that he was looking at him, Mickey couldn’t look away. It was like looking at the surface of the sun.

“I think it’s safe to say you might be into butt stuff,” Ian said.

Mickey threw his head back and laughed. The sound was a little hysterical, and a masochistic corner of his brain wondered what his dad would think if he could see him now. Like he could read his thoughts, Ian edged closer, wrapping an arm around Mickey’s waist and lying quietly beside him.

The rest of the morning was like time out of time. Mickey supposed it was probably afterglow, but he also couldn’t stop kissing Ian, running his fingers over the planes of his face. They cleaned up and were able to lounge in bed for another hour, then Mickey’s phone rang and he had to go meet his uncle.

“You gonna be okay here by yourself today?” Mickey asked as he stood at the door, hesitating at the threshold. He really just wanted to stay home today, with Ian.

Ian was perched on the edge of the couch, and he didn’t dignify Mickey’s question with response, making a “Pfft” sound and shooing Mickey with one hand.

“Jesus, I was just asking,” Mickey said. He wanted to kiss him goodbye, but was hit by a weird wave of shyness. Which was ridiculous. The kid had had his fingers in Mickey’s ass an hour ago. The time for coyness should more or less be through.

Still, he held back, drinking in Ian’s smile and forcing himself out the door.

Later, much later, as he was walking back with his uncle from a few collections they'd made over by Malcolm X College, he was still smiling intermittently, thinking about his morning with Ian. It felt like being high, his thoughts loopy and fizzy with carbonation.

“You’re smiley today,” his uncle observed.

Mickey, who realized he was once again grinning mindlessly, snapped his mouth shut, willing his face to go blank.

“Care to share the joke with the class?” Ronnie pressed. He seemed amused, or at least Mickey hoped he was amused, because he wasn’t smiling even as he stared at Mickey.

“Nope, all good here,” Mickey said.

As they reached the car, Ronnie shook his head. “Whatever you say.” He was silent as Mickey started driving and pulled away from the curb. Ronnie never drove if he could help it, and Colin was off on another job today, so they were borrowing his car. “After you drop me off, I need you to go and pick up your sister at the your dad's house around four o'clock and bring her to me.”

There went his fucking good mood, Mickey thought darkly to himself.

“Why can’t Colin do it?” he asked. The thought of seeing Mandy's smug fucking smile again was enough to burn off whatever fuzzy happiness he felt from that morning. Not to mention going back to the fucking Milkovich house of horrors, jesus christ.

“Mickey,” his uncle said sternly, "if I tell you to do something, it’s not a request. I’m not asking you to do it for your health. You do it.”

“Yeah, okay,” Mickey grumbled.

Ronnie didn’t seem satisfied. “We clear?”

Mickey resisted the urge to roll his eyes, somewhat impressively, he thought. “Yeah, we’re clear.”

“Good,” Ronnie said. He looked impassively out the window. “Mandy told me you’ve seen her the last few times you’ve brought the cleaning in.”

Mickey didn’t respond, grinding his jaw a little as he turned on the street toward his uncle’s condo building.

Ronnie didn’t seem inclined to say anymore, and Mickey was glad. He was starting to tense a bit thinking of seeing Mandy, wondering if she’d be able to tell that she’d gotten into his head, if she’d know as soon as she saw him what he’d done with Ian that morning. Probably, he figured. Goddamnit.

He was a little distracted when he pulled up to Ronnie’s building, and it took him a second to realize Ronnie was making no moves to leave the car.

He was sitting looking thoughtfully out his window instead. “Terry did a lot of unforgiveable things,” he said after a while. He wasn't looking at Mickey, but Mickey tensed anyway. “But I think one of the worst things he did was try and turn all you kids against each other.”

“He didn’t turn us against each other,” Mickey argued, a little nonsensically. He had no idea why he was trying to defend his dad. He just hated his uncle’s blasé tone.

Ronnie acted like Mickey hadn’t spoken. “Your sister needs a place to stay, Mick,” he said. “I would ask you to take her in, but I assume you’re busy at the moment.” Mickey’s cheeks went red but he kept his eyes fixed on the steering wheel. He knew his uncle was staring at him now, but he couldn’t look him in the eye.

Finally, mercifully, his uncle opened the door and stepped out. He leaned down to peer at Mickey through the open window. “Don’t think you’re the only one who ever needed to get out of that house, kiddo.” He tapped the hood of the car and turned away, heading up the stairs to his building.

Mickey waited until he got inside and then three-point turned to drive toward his apartment. Endless retorts and cutting responses flowed through his mind, but his uncle was gone and they were useless now.

Fucking uncles and their fucking cryptic sayings. Fuck.

 

****

 

That afternoon, shortly after Mickey left, Ian was waiting for Lip to show up at the apartment and he was nervous as all hell. He’d called to run it by Mickey, who’d told him of fucking course he could invite his brother over, they didn’t live in the fortress of solitude, and besides Ian paid at least a third of the rent (which Ian was nearly positive was a lie because while he couldn’t prove it, he knew in his bones Mickey wasn’t doing anything with the money Ian forced him to accept, unless he was putting together some kind of tiny trust fund in Ian’s name), so he didn’t have to fucking ask permission to do anything.

But Ian still asked, and Mickey still said, “Yes, of course, jesus,” in a deeply exasperated tone over the phone, and with Mickey out helping his uncle, Ian was left to wallow in nerves waiting for Lip to arrive.

He tried to tidy up, making a lap with a broom he’d found in the closet, punching the pillows on the couch and rearranging them so they looked less pathetic, running a cloth over the kitchen counter, futzing with the stools.

Stepping back, he surveyed his efforts. “Yep,” he said out loud, “still a shithole.”

There was a series of knocks on the door and Ian whipped around, but then he noticed the rhythm. It was Jingle Bells. When they were younger and still lived at the old house, he and Lip used to knock softly on the wall separating the boy's room from Fiona's room at night to piss Fiona off.

Ian felt himself start to smile as he went to let Lip in.

“Hey, man,” Lip said when Ian opened the door. He was smirking too. He had a heavy-looking messenger bag slung over his shoulder and two smoothies in his hands. He handed the green one to Ian. “This one is supposed to be healthy and tastes like shit, so you’ll probably love it.”

A little touched at the gesture, Ian nodded. “Thanks.” He stepped back, sweeping an arm to the side to usher Lip inside. “Get on in here, dude.”

Lip looked around sharply as he moved past the door, and Ian knew he was taking in the weird stain on the wall by the TV, the smell of stale cigarettes, the sparse furnishing. Ian felt like an idiot but he still held his breath. Lip was an asshole, but he was the asshole Ian heard in his head whenever he felt insecure, so he still waited for the verdict.

“Better than that fucking motel flophouse you were living at before,” he said with a shrug.

Ian let out an exhale and joined Lip on the couch, watching his brother pull out a few notebooks and an impressive-looking stack of folders out of his bag.

“Mickey’s out working,” Ian said, when he noticed Lip glancing around.

“Ah, your Totally Platonic Friend works, too? Got a bit of a catch on your hands, huh?” Lip grinned easily. “What is he, head of the Plumber’s Union? Living off his pension from forty years on the job?”

“He’s my age, actually,” Ian said. He felt almost proud as he said it. “Well, he’s two years older than me.”

Lip looked suitably impressed. “Look at you! Getting with dudes who aren't twice your age. Nice one.”

That was the closest to brotherly approval Ian had gotten from Lip in a long time. He looked away, sucking down some of his smoothie, feeling a little discomfited and warm.

He gestured at everything in Lip’s lap to change the subject. “So what’d you find?”

“Well,” Lip said, taking a deep breath, “I don’t know how you found the name Harriet Bell in the first place, but if you hadn’t given me that, I would’ve found absolutely dick. So tell your source or whoever, good fucking job.”

Ian pulled out his cell phone and sent Svetlana a message: lip says good job finding the name of the first girl.

After a second, he sent another: thanks lana.

He looked up, seeing Lip watching him. “I made a few half-ass calls to the Chicago PD headquarters to ask about details, but it’s an open investigation and they basically told me to go fuck myself when I asked for details on specific homicides. So I thought we were fucked.” Lip smiled in satisfaction. “But then, I have this friend in grad school. He’s doing his dissertation on transgender sex work and symbolic interactionism within the framework of hustler-client relations.”

Ian felt his mouth hang open a little. “What does that…even mean…”

Lip was already shaking his head. “Who fucking knows, man. I don’t even think he knows.” He pulled out one of the files on his lap. “But the good news is, dude already filed a metric ass-load of Freedom Of Information Act requests on solicitation arrests around the city as part of his research, and then he mapped them out.”

Lip looked ready to say something else, then he stopped himself. Ian watched him toy with the edge of the file, folding the tan corner back and forth.

“What?” Ian asked finally.

“Nothing,” Lip said. He frowned and looked up, biting his lip, then seemed to decide to go for it. “Do you think you’re in here?”

It felt a little bit like getting kicked in the chest, which Ian had only ever experienced once in his actual life, but he was pretty sure this time hurt more. His whole face went swiftly red and hot and he looked down at the now-empty Styrofoam smoothie cup in his hands. His felt twisted up, like something was writing around in his belly.

Lip seemed to sense his distress. He reached over and punched Ian lightly on the shoulder. “Hey man, relax,” he said. “You’re probably not. Even if you were, all minors aren’t listed by names, just aliases, if they even have them. And everything will get wiped clean when you turn eighteen.”

Ian shrugged. He was thinking of the first time he’d been arrested. He’d been nearly sixteen and gotten picked up for loitering in a car outside the strip club where he’d been working then. He’d been hooking up with a trick (back before he knew what a trick was, and that accepting the handful of bills from the middle-aged regular from the club who sometimes drove him home and blew him made him a trick), and the cops had thrown him in the drunk tank overnight. He’d been released the next morning on a wave of blustery threats, but at the time, it had been the most terrifying night of Ian’s life.

Which was somewhat comical now, he reflected.

“I don’t even know why aliases are listed in the first place,” Lip was saying, and Ian re-focused on his words. “I thought cases with minors were sealed. My grad school friend said most of these reports were unofficial, since a lot of the people were arrested but no actual charges were filed.” He tiled his head, looking at Ian. “Which is lucky, I guess. You won’t have a record.”

Lip was trying, Ian knew. That almost made it worse though, Ian’s skin starting to itch listening to his brother painstakingly talk his way around the fact that he was probably holding real, physical evidence, however vague and non-incriminating to a layperson, that his little brother was hooking.

“Would you mind,” Ian asked, trying to think of the phrasing, “I mean, could we please just talk about Harriet Bell?” He tried to ignore the way he could feel Lip watching him.

“Sure, Ian,” he said after a beat. “Sure we can.” His voice sounded a little hoarse and he cleared his throat. Ian tried to ignore that too.

Finally, Lip tapped the top of the pile of files. “All that bullshit aside, my grad school friend’s research ended up being kind of a jackpot when it comes to Harriet Bell.” Lip pulled out a map, which Ian peered at, recognizing streets and neighborhoods. “She pops up a few times around Humboldt Park and the rest of the West Side, but Harriet Bell was just an alias, and she was underage. So I thought we were at a dead end, but then my roommate, he’s the IT major I was telling you about?” Ian honestly couldn’t remember Lip ever telling him about a roommate, but Lip seemed to be waiting for something from him, so he nodded. Lip smiled grimly. “Well, he was able to crack through a few firewalls. The Chicago PD firewalls are shit, apparently.”

“Good to know,” Ian said, feeling vaguely embarrassed that his only real instinct had been to check Facebook and MySpace.

“Anyway, Jeremy, my IT roommate, he was able to connect Harriet Bell to her real name, Hattie Wilson. And when you search Hattie Wilson, shit starts popping up.”

He handed Ian a pile of paper that at a glance looked like articles printed off the internet. Ian paged through the pile, pausing at a short article about a high school ceremony for Junior ROTC.

Lip tapped the page on the slightly blurry photo near the top of the article. “Is that her?”

“It could be,” Ian said faintly. The photo was a zoomed-in snapshot of a girl with a white rifle over one shoulder. The rows of students were softly out of focus, the photographer zeroing in on the expression on the girl’s face instead. Hattie Wilson, as pictured, was smirking a little, which Ian knew from his year or two in the program was frowned upon during drills and formal events, but Harriet Bell, if this was Harriet Bell, looked like she was desperately trying to hold in a severe case of the church giggles. “How old was she?”

“In this photo? Fifteen, I think. She went to high school over in Pilsen.” Lip reached over to pull a few sheets from the bottom of the stack in the pile on Ian’s lap, and he let him, too caught up in the math problem in his head. The date of the article was from three years ago. So if this was her, she would’ve been no more than eighteen, maybe just a little younger.

“This article was really the earliest thing I could find about her online. I found an online posting after that. Looks like she ran away a year and a half ago, but shit, you ever waded through those databases before? It’s fucking depressing, man. All these sixteen-year-old kids who just fucking disappeared off the face of the earth, and nobody can really do shit to get them back.” Lip trailed off a little, staring away, considering the fates of those missing kids, Ian supposed. He wondered if his brother realized that for all intents and purposes, he was talking about Ian.

He felt a crushing wave of affection for his cocky asshole of an older brother. “Thanks for doing all this, Lip,” he told him suddenly. Lip glanced at him and made to wave a hand dismissively, but Ian shook his head, reaching out to put a hand on Lip’s shoulder. “I’m serious. Thank you.”

It was a little overwhelming, thinking that Lip had dropped everything in his busy college life and thrown all he had at the tiny lead Ian had given him in just a couple days. Ian wondered how you thanked someone for loving you, for being willing to do anything to protect you because of that love. He wished he knew how.

Lip still seemed embarrassed, but he looked Ian in the eye. “I have her family’s address. They’re still in Pilsen.”

“What do you think?” Ian asked. “Do we call them?”

“Well, if we want to figure out how she might be connected to you, I think that’s our only choice.”

“Aside from ROTC,” Ian said.

Lip raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“Except for how we’re connected through ROTC,” Ian repeated. He flipped through the stack of sheets and brought out the original article. “She was a year older than me, but I might’ve seen her at events. Who knows.”

“Huh,” Lip said, thoughtful. “When she wasn’t from our neighborhood, I figured it would be a more abstract connection or whatever. But you’re right. That’s something.” He looked at Ian. “What do you think, man? Should I call them?”

Ian considered it. He thought about Harriet Bell (or Hattie Wilson, Ian guessed he should call her, but it was hard to think of her as anyone other than Harriet Bell) and her family, and her mom or dad picking up the phone to some stranger asking about their missing daughter. He didn’t want to dredge everything up for them.

But he also thought about the way the first dead girl had looked, sprawled out and afraid, and decided they didn’t really have much choice.

“Give them a call,” he said. Lip nodded. He opened his mouth to say something, but the door to the apartment slammed open at that moment.

Mickey came stomping inside, kicking off one boot and sending it careening against the wall, then stumbling as he tried to yank off the other. “Fuck you!” he huffed at the boot, scowling like a storm cloud. He freed himself and chucked it in the direction of the other.

He looked up and saw Ian and Lip on the couch and froze. “How’s it going,” he said awkwardly.

Ian tried not smile too wide, but it was tough. He was so glad to see Mickey, and to have a distraction from the grim investigation talk with Lip. “Hey, man,” he called out. “You okay?”

Mickey walked a little closer to the couch. “Um, yeah, I guess.” He tugged absently at his hair. “You know, just some bullshit with my uncle.” He glanced at Lip. “Sup.”

Lip was looking at Mickey with narrowed eyes. Ian didn’t think he know who Mickey was completely yet, but he definitely recognized him.

“Hey,” Lip said slowly. He glanced at Ian, then back at Mickey. “So you’re Mickey.”

Ian stood up, giving into the impulse to stand closer to the shorter boy. Who looked perturbed, still, not just from walking into the apartment and seeing Ian’s brother on the couch, but from something else, and Ian wanted to make it better. Ian couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt this tender intensity about somebody, this need to protect and soothe. Maybe he’d never felt it before.

He touched Mickey on the shoulder. “You want a beer or something?”

“Yes,” he said, with feeling. But as Ian turned away, he grabbed his elbow. “Wait, I can’t though. I need to go pick up Mandy.” He sounded the opposite of enthused.

“Mandy,” Lip muttered thoughtfully from his seat on the couch.

Ian gave him a confused look, then looked back at Mickey. “Want me to come with?” he asked.

Mickey looked conflicted. Then he nodded, even as he opened his mouth to reply, but Lip cut him off.

“Wait. Mandy.” There was another pause as he connected the dots. He pointed at Mickey. “Mickey Milkovich? Jesus, Ian, come on,” Lip exclaimed, dragging both hands over his face.

“Take it easy, Lip,” Ian tried, but Lip was up and stuffing his files angrily back into his bag.

“Goddamnit Ian. You’re in here playing house with this fucking fag basher and you wonder why your life’s going to hell?”

“What the hell does that mean?” Mickey shouted, throwing his hands up.

“Cute, that’s real cute,” Lip said angrily. He shoved past Mickey to the door. “You really know how to pick ‘em, don’t you, Ian?”

Ian tried to stop Lip. “Come on, man, just wait.” But Lip twisted out of his arms.

“Do you know how goddamn difficult it is to worry about you, to want you to be happy and safe, when you keep making so many fucking stupid decisions?” Lip said, biting out every word. “I’ll give you a hint: it’s really goddamn difficult.”

And with that, Lip, who always had a flair for the dramatic, stormed out, leaving Ian flushed and angry in his wake.

 

****

 

About an hour later, Mickey could tell Ian was still struggling with something as they drove in Colin’s car to pick up Mandy.

“You don’t have to apologize for your brother,” Mickey said finally.

“Yes, I do,” Ian insisted. His hands twisted in his lap. “He was an asshole to you for no reason, when all you’ve done is bust your ass to help me out when you didn’t have to.”

“Ian, it’s fine,” Mickey said. And it was. Mostly he was mad at the things Lip had said to Ian. The guy spoke to wound, shit, and Mickey wasn’t about that. He was hit with a powerful urge to call Colin and invite him over to watch as much Days Of Our Lives reruns as the idiot wanted.

Ian groaned, throwing his head back. “No, it’s not fine, Mickey. Fuck.” He glared out the windshield in frustration. “And why are we driving so goddamn slowly, jesus, are we coasting to a stop here?”

“Fuck you, you know how many people die in car crashes every year?” Mickey said mildly, mostly because he was invulnerable to teasing about his driving at this point in his life. Colin alone had helped him build up lifetime immunity. “Over thirty thousand, that’s how many.”

Nerd,” Ian muttered under his breath, even as he huffed out a chuckle.

Hesitating only for a second, Mickey reached out and squeezed Ian’s knee. He took his hand away almost immediately, but Ian smiled at him, albeit a little grudgingly.

Mickey could admit to himself how he was glad Ian was beside him when they pulled up in front of the Milkovich house. He hadn’t seen it in over a year. It looked just as rundown as Mickey remembered, simultaneously bigger and smaller than his imagination usually painted it. It felt like looking at a house you knew was haunted, because you were there when the nightmares started.

He shook himself, noticing Mandy, who was waiting for them on the front steps with a suitcase at her side. She smirked as they stopped in front of the house and she dragger her bag over, throwing it in the trunk.

“If it isn’t the famous Ian Gallagher,” she said expansively as soon as she slid into the back seat, not even sparing Mickey a “hello”, causing him to roll his eyes. “I’d know that head of hair anywhere.”

Ian gave her a quizzical look. “Hey, don’t I know you?”

Mandy paused, and seemed to actually see Ian for the first time.

“You,” she said. Then, louder, “You! Yeah, I remember you! You tripped that pervy English teacher when he was standing next to me with the boner that one time!”

“What the fuck?” Mickey said in disgust, but Ian and Mandy just ignored him, caught up in the shared memory.

“Mr. Harris! That guy was the creepiest creeper to ever creep, I swear to god,” Ian said, laughing, Mandy joining him, and the sound of their laughter bouncing against each other in the air made Mickey frown.

He wasn’t fucking jealous, he just thought it was fucking bullshit that Mandy was so nice and charming to some stranger she barely knew just because he had a pretty face and rode to her rescue once in high school. That’s all.

“It’s good to see you,” Ian was saying, smiling that dumb wide grin of his. “You look great, seriously.”

Mickey eyed Mandy in the rearview mirror, and watched her actually blush. “Thanks,” she said, tucking her hair behind her ear self-consciously. “You do, too.”

“Jesus,” Mickey said under his breath. He glared at the rush hour traffic, inching along at a four-way stop. He was in hell.

“So you’re staying with Mickey, huh?” Mandy said, less jovially this time, more curious.

Ian ducked his head slightly and rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, Mickey’s been a lifesaver, letting me stay with him.” He looked up at Mickey through his eyelashes, a little bashful, and Mickey wanted to crush his mouth to his so bad he ached, the goddamn beautiful idiot.

He shook himself. “It’s a hassle, but at least he doesn’t clean or cook or pick up after himself, so it’s working out really well,” Mickey said lightly.

“Fuck you,” Ian said, laughing.

He reached out and knocked Mickey gently on the shoulder with his knuckles, the motion so unconscious for both of them that Mickey rolled his eyes and Ian smirked before either of them really realized Mandy was watching them.

“Looks like someone’s not so afraid anymore,” Mandy said softly.

Mickey shot her a look over his shoulder. “Shut the fuck up,” he said spitefully.

Mandy chuckled. “Easy, princess. I’m just happy for you.”

Ian’s easy smile began to dim. “Happy about what? What’s going on?”

“Happy about nothing,” Mickey said firmly. He glared at Mandy in the rearview mirror. “Drop it, Mandy.”

But Mandy dropped nothing, and Mickey knew that, so he wasn’t exactly surprised when she shook her head. “I’m happy that Mickey’s finally getting over everything that happened.” She titled her head, studying Ian. “You know about all that, right?”

Ian wasn’t smiling at Mandy anymore. “Are you talking about why Mickey moved out of your guys’ dad’s house?” His voice was slightly incredulous. Mickey couldn’t tell if he was relieved or uncomfortable that Ian addressed it so directly, but then, he felt somewhat removed from the dispute that was gaining momentum right in front of him. It was like being a spectator at a tennis match that was picking up speed.

“I’m just glad you’re making him come out of his shell, that’s all.” Mandy shrugged. “You gotta get back on that horse, you know,” she said, repeating her mantra from the other day at the Laundromat. Like the most important part of what had happened to Mickey (and to her too, he reminded himself, he always had to keep reminding himself) was that he got over it as quick as he could. And maybe for her, it was. A weirdly calm corner of Mickey’s brain reasoned it wasn’t the same for everyone, even while the rest of him reared in mild panic at the casual way Mandy referred to what had happened to him.

“I don’t really think that’s any of your fucking business, frankly,” Ian said, his voice cold. “So maybe you should shut the fuck up about it.”

Mickey was completely taken aback. Ian sounded fierce, all earlier goodwill toward Mandy drained away. It was an odd experience, watching Ian defend him to Mandy.

Mandy seemed both startled and offended by Ian’s hostility.

“I’m not trying—” Mandy tried to say, but Ian cut her off.

He shook his head sharply. “I would never make Mickey do anything. He can do whatever he wants. So you should back off about it.”

Mandy glared. “Don’t tell me how to talk to my own brother,” she snapped.

Mickey stopped at a stop sign, and Ian looked ready to really unload on Mandy, but there was a high, feminine voice that called out instead.

“Ian? Is that you?”

Ian jerked and turned to look out the window. A petite blonde girl Mickey vaguely recognized was standing at the corner, bent down a little, shielding her eyes with her hand to look inside the car.

“Karen?” Ian said, sounding surprised.

“I knew it was you!” Karen crowed, laughing. She stepped up to the car and crouched down to swoop her upper body inside through the open window, wrapping her arms around Ian. Mickey watched Ian endure the hug without lifting his arms to return it.

Slowly, Mickey began to recognize her. Karen Jackson was somewhat legendary in the neighborhood, as Mickey recalled. His brothers had always been panting after her. If he stretched the edges of his memory, he thought maybe he’d heard she was hanging around with one of the Gallagher boys, Lip he supposed now, but he’d been pretty wrapped up in all that shit with Jimmy Carter at the time.

From his seat in the car, Ian was eyeing Karen. “How’s it going?” he asked, a little stiff.

“It’s good!” Karen said sunnily. “How’s Lip?”

Ian raised an eyebrow, looking more immediately testy than Mickey had ever seen him. “He’s good. He’s at college, at UIC.”

“He ended up going to school?” Mandy’s soft voice from the back of the car surprised Mickey, and he turned to look at her. Ian glanced at her too.

“Yeah, he’s studying robotics,” he said, watching Mandy carefully.

Karen caught sight of Mandy too, and something in her face went sharp. She reminded Mickey of a fox, playful and delicate and dangerous. “Is that Mandy back there? You always did love the backseat of a car, didn’t you?” Karen’s voice sounded soft and teasing, with just the smallest hint of harshness at the edges.

“Fuck you,” Mickey and Mandy said at the same time. Mandy looked surprised, but Mickey just shrugged, because Mandy might’ve been a skank in high school but that was none of this skinny bitch’s business.

Karen laughed, like they were all having such fun. She turned back to Ian. “I heard a story or two about you, Ian.” She leaned a hip against the car, settling in for a nice long chat. Her eyes flitted across Ian’s face, her gaze intelligent and a little frightening in Mickey’s opinion.

“Oh yeah?” Ian said. Mickey was watching him, the way his shoulders were stiff and his hand was wrapped around the edge of the center console.

Nodding, Karen shrugged one shoulder carelessly. “Mhm. You know how people love to gossip. Me, I was sure you’d never stoop that low. I know it would break Lip’s heart.” Her mouth turned down sadly, but her eyes were sparkling.

Ian stared out the windshield stonily.

“Mick, just run her over with the car,” Mandy said tiredly from the backseat, crossing her arms and throwing herself back against the upholstery. “I doubt anyone would mourn her.”

Karen narrowed her eyes, but she stayed calm. “Lip might, I bet.”

“Once more, with feeling: fuck you, Karen,” Mandy all but hissed.

Mickey could admit he was a little out of the loop here, but he was getting the sense that Mandy must’ve been involved with Ian’s brother at some point. Which was a shame, because judging by what he’d seen earlier, Ian’s brother was kind of a shithead.

“Karen?” An older woman poked her head out of the house they were essentially parked in front of. She squinted, trying to get a look at who Karen was talking to, and edged down the porch and onto the front lawn. “Karen, who’ve you got over there?”

She made her way closer to the car. She looked like Karen, and Mickey assumed she was the bitch’s mother. Her face widened into a smile when she saw Ian.

“Ian!” she called out. She stayed on the sidewalk, but bent at the waist to look inside, waving a little. “It’s so good to see you, sweetheart!” She had a weird way of speaking, her mouth twisting as she spoke, and Mickey was caught by how she seemed at once sweet and slightly unhinged.

“Hi, Sheila,” Ian said weakly.

“Oh, I can’t even tell you how good it is to see you! How are Fiona and the other kids?”

Ian looked down. “They’re good,” he said.

Sheila frowned, the expression pained. “Oh. I see. I thought maybe she would be able to get custody…I guess not though. I’m so sorry.”

Running his hand over his face, Ian shook his head. “It’s fine, Sheila.”

“You want to come in for dinner, Ian?” She nodded at Mickey and Mandy. “Your friends are welcome! I made meatloaf.”

“That’s okay, Sheila,” Ian said. “Really.”

“Need to get back to work I bet, right, Ian?” Karen said slyly, and Mickey was a second away from throwing down. From the way she shifted in the backseat, so was Mandy. But it was Sheila that gave her daughter a sharp look.

“Karen,” she said in a low scolding tone, and Karen looked away. Mickey fought the urge to snicker. Sheila tried one last time to win Ian over. “But meatloaf! Your favorite, isn’t it?” Sheila was starting to sound uncertain.

Ian looked at his hand that was gripping the center console. “Actually, Mickey’s got dinner planned back home,” he said, looking at Mickey a little desperately. Mickey shrugged, because it wasn’t like he had the crockpot going but he had been planning to make lasagna.

“You cook?” Sheila asked him, picking up the thread of conversation a little desperately.

Mickey raised both eyebrows. “Yes?” Goddamnit, what the hell was going on?

“Maybe you can get him that meatloaf recipe sometime,” Ian offered, and Mickey could tell he was trying to be friendly but there was something off in his tone.

Mandy huffed impatiently from the backseat. “Jesus, if we sit here any longer I’m going to need a haircut soon—”

“I think about you kids all the time,” Sheila interrupted, staring at Ian with an almost vibrating intensity. “I mean it. Liam and Debbie, and you and Lip, and even Carl. I wish I could’ve helped, but Fiona wanted to try and keep you together, and by then the state had stepped in, and…” She trailed off, pressing her fingers to her lips.

An uneven silence fell, and Mickey was struck by how incredibly awkward this whole exchange was, Karen with one hip perched against the window, Sheila bent almost in half to peer into the car, Ian and Mandy both equally combative and caught off guard like a pair of angry cats.

“Welp,” he said to no one. “We better get going.”

No one acknowledged him right away. Sheila was the first to blink. “Oh. Of course. Well, it was nice to see you, Ian.” She nodded at Mickey and Mandy. “And you guys, too. It’s always nice to see you kids from the neighborhood all grown up.” She winked at Mickey. “I’ll try and get you that meatloaf recipe.”

Mickey nodded uneasily. “Sure.”

Karen cocked her head to the side, hands on her hips. “Tell Lip I’ve been thinking of him, Ian.”

Ian rolled his eyes. “I’ll definitely do that,” he said, in a voice that said he definitely would not.

With infinite relief, Mickey eased away from the curb, watching Karen and her mother shrink in the rearview mirror.

No one spoke in the car for the next ten blocks. Finally, Mickey couldn’t take it anymore.

“I think I speak for everyone when I say, what the fuck,” Mickey said.

“Ugh,” Mandy intoned in agreement.

Ian sighed. “Karen’s always been weird,” he said tiredly. “I mean, she was fine when we were younger, I kind of liked her then even, she was so cool and kind of funny. But then her and Lip got all intense and she knew I thought she was bad for him.” He sighed. “She’s like an elephant: never forgets and never forgives.”

“Fucking psycho bitch,” Mandy mumbled.

Mickey shook his head impatiently. “Not the skinny blonde idiot.” He doubted that tiny girl could wrestle her way out of a paper bag, let alone kill another human being. But then, maybe that was a dangerous assumption. Fuck, all this suspicion was exhausting. “I’m talking about her mother.” He glanced at Ian out of the corner of her eye. “She always been that fucking batty?”

Ian frowned. “Sheila? Kind of, I guess. She used to never leave the house, and then she was with my dad for a while, which really doesn’t speak to mental stability, let me tell you. And then she kind of attached herself to our family, and I don’t know. She took it pretty hard when all the littler kids moved away, especially Liam. She loved Liam.”

She seemed especially attached to Ian too, but Mickey kept his mouth shut. He didn’t like the intense way she stared at Ian, but he also didn’t know if that was specific to Ian or if Sheila was just, well, batty. He could admit he was starting to feel a little paranoid, seeing shadows and puppet strings everywhere.

“I’m sorry Karen was such an asshole to you back there,” Ian said. It took Mickey a second to realize he was talking to Mandy in the backseat.

Mandy seemed startled too. “It’s okay,” she said. “She was mostly an asshole to you, anyway.”

“Well, a lot of people are assholes to me these days, so I’m kind of used to it,” Ian said breezily, making Mickey frown.

Mandy laughed. “Fucking tell me about it, man.” She studied Ian for a moment. “You’re a mouthy little shit.” She sounded almost admiring.

“And you’re kind of a bully,” Ian said back.

She and Ian shared a small smile that seemed to last forever, and Mickey groaned internally. Looked like they were best buddies again. Goddamnit.

 

****

 

After they dropped Mandy off at Ronnie’s and were heading back to the apartment, Ian got a call on his cell phone.

Like a conditioned response, his heart started to pound when he looked at the display and saw it was a restricted number calling.

“Hello?” he answered. He tried not to let his voice wobble like a coward.

“Ian Gallagher?” The voice was harried and familiar. “It’s Larry. From the Super 8 over on Cermak.”

Ian heaved a relieved sigh that made his lungs feel heavy. He’d never been so happy to hear his former asshole landlord’s voice before.

“Larry,” Ian said. Mickey was giving him a look and Ian covered the mouthpiece of the phone, mouthing “Landlord” and Mickey nodded. “How’s it going, man?”

Larry sighed gustily. “Well, you could say it’s going well. Except that your delinquent ass managed to skip out on over a week’s rent for your room and still leave some of your shit behind.”

Ian frowned, trying to remember. he knew he'd skipped out on some rent, but he didn't remember leaving anything behind. He’d left in somewhat of a hurry, but he’d gotten his backpack and his wallet and managed to steal those pillows, so he thought he was set. It’s not like he had that much shit to forget.

“You left a garbage bag full of clothes,” Larry prompted. “There’s some books too, and someone kept sending you mail so I put that together too. I don’t know why I didn’t just throw it all away, but I guess I’m getting soft in my old age. Come get your stuff tonight or I’m tossing it all.”

Feeling surprised at the consideration, Ian raised his eyebrows. “Well, thanks, Larry. You didn’t have to do that.”

“Damn right I didn’t,” Larry muttered, and hung up.

“Who was that?” Mickey asked.

“The guy who owned that motel where I was crashing before I started staying with you,” Ian said. He pursed his lips thoughtfully. “He said I left some clothes and other stuff behind. He told me to come pick it up or he’s throwing it away.”

“That was pretty nice of him,” Mickey reasoned.

“I guess,” Ian allowed, although Larry had never struck him as a nice guy before. He poked Mickey’s knee with his finger. “Hey, you think you could drive me over there real quick?”

Mickey swatted at his hand half-heartedly. “Stop poking me and I will.”

Ian directed him back in the direction they’d come, guiding him onto Cermak and telling him to slow down when the motel came into view. Seeing it from the outside again, Ian was struck by how dingy it looked.

“Nice place,” Mickey said dryly.

“Shut up,” Ian said. He unbuckled himself and turned to Mickey. “I’ll be right back.”

Mickey raised his eyebrows. “You don’t want me to come in?”

Ian did, but he also hated sounding clingy, even if it was only in his own mind. “I’ll be in and out. Besides, Larry’s a pain in the ass. I’m doing you a favor.”

Rolling his eyes, Mickey unlocked the doors. “Okay, but move your ass. I was serious about that lasagna.”

With a nod, Ian got out and jogged into the motel, taking in the familiar squeak of the door and the stain on the carpet just to the side of the entrance.

He spotted Larry at the front desk away. He looked supremely unimpressed to see Ian. “Guess you can be depended upon to show up when it’s your property that’s at stake.” He reached behind him to pick a key off the wall and tossed it at Ian. “Housekeeping found your stuff this morning and no one's been checked into that room today. Should be in the closet, so you can go up and get it yourself.”

Giving a thumbs-up that made Larry grimace like the world had no idea of the troubles he'd seen, Ian started up the stairs.

It was weird being back. It felt like walking through the hallways of a place someone had told him about once, that was familiar to him secondhand rather than through his own life. The stale-smelling hallway of the third floor made even Mickey’s dilapidated apartment building seem spiffy.

He unlocked his old room, surprised again that nothing felt directly familiar as he walked inside. He’d stayed here for almost four months but all he could think of was hurrying up so he could go back with Mickey to the apartment he was starting to think of as theirs.

He walked to the back closet and slid open the door, the mirrored wood creaking on the track.

There was a stack of three or four books he recognized as ones he’d stolen from the library months ago. He must have forgotten them under the bed where he’d been stashing them. He picked up the stack of mail addressed to him that lay on top of the books. Mostly junk mail, but a letter with loopy writing caught his eye and he ripped it open. A small smile crept across his face when he found a card from Carl and Liam inside. It had penguins on the front, and inside he recognized Carl’s blocky script.

Ian We Miss You Come See Us Soon LOVE Carl + Liam

At the bottom there were a few sentences with the same loopy script from the envelope: Ian, we couldn’t find your phone number but we had a forwarding address and hoped we could catch you this way. The boys would love to see you. Please contact us if you’d like to visit. Best, Thomas and Steve. A phone number was scribbled below the paragraph.

Ian smiled, running his finger over the sentence from Carl and Liam. He folded the card and stuck it in the back pocket of his jeans.

Beside the books was a black garbage bag sagging listlessly to its side. He remembered stuffing some clothes in a garbage bag when he left the group home. He must’ve dragged them to the motel and stuffed them under the bed with the books.

He pulled the bag out to the center of the room and knelt down, opening it to let the light from the dim bulb in the ceiling glance on its contents.

He recognized a few of his old T-shirts and a ratty pair of jeans he was sure he’d lost forever. Reaching inside, he pushed the clothes on top aside to see what was in the bottom.

His fingers brushed against something cool, smooth and soft.

He felt his stomach turn in on itself as he jerked his hand away and then went completely still.

It was like he left his body for a moment, floating to the ceiling as he watched himself slowly pull the edges of the garbage bag open, pulling out handfuls of T-shirts and jeans until all his clothes were piled on the ground and he could see the remaining contents of the bag clearly.

It was the feet, lying on their sides slotted neatly together, sheared off at the ankles so Ian could just see the outline of bone where it had been sawed through. Like the hands, he was struck by how small and delicate the feet seemed. Like the hands, the nails were painted but not as precisely, like the girl they belonged to had gotten a pedicure months ago and the paint job had long since started to chip.

He let go of the bag, the black material going slack and once again obscuring the feet from gaze.

“Fuck,” he muttered to himself, his voice wet. “Fuck, fucking fuck.” He was rocking back and forth on his heels before he realized what he was doing. He turned away, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes until he saw bursts of color.

He stood up. He felt dizzy, but more than that, he felt the beginnings of rage working its way up his body, so strong he was nauseated.

Without thinking, he grabbed the garbage bag and took it with him, its grisly contents surprisingly heavy and swaying as Ian ran downstairs. His mind was curiously blank as he pounded down the stairs and shoved open the doors to the lobby.

Larry was still at the front desk, flipping through a magazine.

Ian set the garbage bag down and came at him like a freight train. He shoved the other man against the wall, pushing so hard he lifted Larry nearly off his feet.

“What the hell!” Larry yelped. He grappled with Ian’s hands that gripped his shirt but Ian was stronger and fueled by near-apoplectic anger.

Ian shoved him back against the wall, towering over him slightly. “You think this is a motherfucking game?” he hissed, getting up into Larry’s face. He wanted to tear the bastard apart with his bare hands, and he might’ve, if Mickey hadn’t come inside at that moment.

“Come on, Gallagher, I physically aged waiting for you to get back—” Mickey griped, then caught sight of Ian holding the gaping motel manager against the wall. “Ian!” He ran over, pulling at Ian’s elbow. “Come on, man. Calm down.”

Ian blinked, his single-minded fury somewhat derailed. He looked at Mickey, then jerked his chin at the black garbage bag he’d left in front of the desk. “Look in the bag, Mick.”

Mick grimaced. Moving slowly, like he already knew what he was about to see, Mickey knelt and opened the mouth of the bag. Almost immediately, he slammed it shut.

“Jesus christ,” he bit out under his breath. He joined Ian where he stood nearly strangling Larry against the wall.

“Did you leave the bag for me?” Ian demanded, reaching up to smack Larry upside the head.

Larry flinched and started babbling. “Housekeeping found it under the bed this morning, we’ve only rented out that room for hourly customers since you moved out so I assumed it was yours!” He glanced wildly at the bag where it lay almost innocently on the floor. “Why, what’s inside it?”

With one last shove, Ian let him go, stepping back a few paces. He didn’t know if Larry was telling the truth. He thought the guy looked suitably stunned and confused, but then, Ian's entire head felt like it was buzzing so loudly he could barely think.

“What’s in the bag?” Larry demanded again.

Mickey reached across and gave him a shove of his own. “Don’t fucking worry about it, pal. Go back to running your roach motel.”

Ian was standing a little dumbly in the middle of the lobby, and was only vaguely aware of Mickey grabbing the garbage bag and wrapping a hand around Ian’s elbow.

“Let’s go, Ian,” he said into Ian’s ear, his voice almost gentle.

The next thing Ian knew, they were standing around the corner beside where Mickey had double-parked Colin’s car. Mickey set the bag on the pavement and grabbed Ian’s shoulders, turning him so they were face to face.

“Ian,” he said. “Ian, talk to me.”

“What do we do now?” Ian asked numbly. “Call the cops?” He laughed suddenly, the sound wet and more like a sob than anything.

Mickey looked lost. “I don’t know, man. What the fuck else are going to do with these things?” He nodded at the bag at his feet. “But if we call the cops, we’re fucked. We’re both fucked. That asshole you roughed up inside is probably calling them now.”

And just like that, Ian realized bleakly that he didn’t really have any other options. He pulled out his phone and flipped it open, scrolling through to the number he’d saved off the card a few weeks ago. He waited as the phone rang once, twice, three times, leaning against Mickey at his side, who was watching him worriedly.

When Ian heard the phone click as it was answered, he didn’t even give the other person time to say hello.

“Tony,” Ian said into the phone. His voice sounded hollow to his own ears. “I need a favor.”

Chapter Text

They sat on the hood of Colin’s car waiting for Tony to arrive for a good forty minutes.

The black plastic garbage bag sat on the curb below them quietly. It was an unobtrusive shape in the shadows cast by the hubcaps of the Oldsmobile, but Ian’s eyes were compulsively drawn to it. It was like waiting for the bell to ring in class and coaching yourself not to look at the clock too often. Okay, you can’t look for five more minutes. Just wait five more minutes and you can look again.

Ian ended up looking every minute or so until Mickey sighed and made him switch places so his view was partially obscured by Mickey’s body. He hooked his foot around Ian’s ankle to keep Ian from nervously jiggling his leg. It helped a little.

Mickey had suggested pulling the car around the block in case Larry the motel manager did end up calling the police on his own. So far there didn’t seem to be any sirens pulling up to the building, but Ian and Mickey were both on edge enough that every approaching car made them twitch.

After a brief but passionate argument, Mickey had agreed they should wait for Tony together, and that he wouldn’t call his uncle, at least until after they’d given the feet to Tony.

When a cop car finally turned the corner, flashers off, and came to a slow stop facing them, Mickey shook his head in annoyance.

“Take your fucking time, why don’t you!” he called out sharply as he hopped off the hood of the car. “Jesus. Was there a fucking cat up a tree somewhere?”

Tony turned off his headlights and got out of the cruiser, coming toward them without sparing Mickey a glance.

“Ian?” he called out, peering through the darkness. “You there? What’s going on?”

Ian got off the car and made his way to Tony, feeling irrationally sheepish.

“Hey Tony,” he said as he reached the police cruiser, then, adding, somewhat nonsensically, “Sorry to bother you.”

Tony shook his head, frowning in concern. His hair was a little rumpled like he’d woken up suddenly. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, waving a hand dismissively. “Are you okay?”

Mickey came to stand next to Ian and crossed his arms. “Yeah, he’s great. He called you in a panic to come meet him in a shitty neighborhood after dark, but he’s totally okay.”

Again, Tony ignored Mickey, focusing all his attention on Ian. “Ian?” he prompted.

Ian took a deep breath. “I think I found something to do with the Jane Doe that was murdered on Michigan Avenue.”

Tony raised both eyebrows but stayed patiently silent.

“I think I found her feet,” Ian said. He looked down at his shoes. Fuck, he thought to himself. Fuck.

Tony moved closer so they were more or less standing in a tense huddle. Mickey shifted a little so he was standing slightly in front of Ian, but Tony didn’t seem to notice. “Why didn’t you call 911, Ian?” he asked intently.

Ian just looked at him, because come on. When Tony just went on waiting for a response, Ian had to fight the urge to roll his eyes. “Because I’m fucking terrified I’m going to get arrested for a fucking serial murder,” he said honestly.

“Serial murder?” Tony asked. “What do you mean, serial? Do you have information about another murder you think is connected?”

Ian hesitated, because even though everything was so obvious to him he had to remind himself Tony was just a beat cop, and Mickey stepped in for him. “Do you really need some seventeen-year-old kid doing your police work for you? He’s not getting tax payer money to solve crime, man.”

This time, Tony leveled Mickey with a hard gaze. “You’re awful mouthy for somebody who is obviously trying to avoid being connected to a homicide.”

Ian felt his mouth drop open in horror at the threat, but Mickey just gave a hard laugh. “Really, man? You really expect me to believe you’d put Ian at risk like that? Nice try, asshole.”

Ian cut in before the argument could spiral. “I found the Jane Doe in Humboldt Park, too,” he said. “Harriet Bell.”

The name didn’t seem to ring any bells for Tony, but then, again, he wasn’t a homicide detective and therefore not assigned to that particular case. Briefly, Ian hoped he wasn’t asking Tony to fuck himself by dealing with the evidence in the black garbage bag.

“I called in the tip anonymously for that girl, but now it’s like whoever’s doing this is…” he trailed off, because he still hated saying it. “It’s like the killer is stalking me too.”

He quickly explained about the hands, and now the possible link between the feet in the bag and the second Jane Doe whose feet had been severed. To his credit, Tony was able to keep his expression restrained to moderate alarm until Ian finished speaking.

“Ian,” he said, his voice urgent. “Ian. If what you’re telling me is true, this is really serious.”

“Thanks for weighing in,” Mickey said under his breath.

“You need to report this to someone in homicide,” Tony said, like Mickey hadn’t spoken. “You need to tell Detective Johnson.”

In the abstract, it sounded reasonable. More realistically, Ian knew it was highly unlikely he came away from that call (“Yes, hello, I would like to report a pair of missing feet that are connected to an open murder case. No, this is not the only set of severed extremities I have found in the past month. Sure, I’ll hold.”) not in handcuffs. At the very least, he would be back in the group home, probably a level four at least. None of that was what he wanted.

Maybe if he had a lawyer. Maybe if he was rich, or had a guardian who was a family member and not some faceless state advocate. Maybe if he had a normal life.

“Tony,” he said, looking him right in the eye, urging the other man to understand, “I can’t be connected to this.”

Tony considered for a moment and raised an eyebrow. “Is there something else you’re not telling me, Ian?” he asked quietly.

It took Ian a second, but then he felt his eyes go wide when he realized what Tony was really asking. What it was only reasonable that Tony would be asking.

“Tony, I didn’t,” Ian said, swallowing, because jesus wasn’t that just what someone who had committed a crime would say, “I know how this looks, but I promise, I didn’t do anything, I—”

Tony shook his head, cutting Ian off. “Ian, I believe you.”

He stepped forward and pulled Ian into a rough hug, making Ian go stiff with surprise. Tony had never really gone further than the how-you-doing-man pat on the shoulder before. Did Ian just broadcast vulnerability anymore, he wondered bleakly, making everyone want to swoop in and wrap him up like a fragile baby animal? He hated the feeling, hated feeling helpless, but at the moment he could do little more than stand still and endure Tony’s embrace.

“So we just gonna cuddle all night or you maybe want to make some moves?” Mickey said impatiently.

Tony stepped back and looked at Mickey distastefully. “You know, I can’t say I was sorry when you moved out of the neighborhood, Milkovich.”

“I missed you too, sweetheart,” Mickey said, rolling his eyes. He went back to Colin’s car and gingerly picked up the black garbage bag from the curb, bringing it back slowly to where Tony and Ian were waiting like he was carrying a live grenade. He offered it to Tony. “So if I give this to you now, you’ll make sure it’s not connected to Ian?”

“Or to Mickey,” Ian interjected, because that was important too. “Can you say there was some kind of anonymous tip or something?”

“I might have to backdate a call log, but it should be okay,” Tony said.

He bent down so he could set the bag on the concrete, pulling a flashlight out of his utility belt. He shined it in the bag and Ian watched his eyes go wide like a cartoon character. “Mother of god,” he muttered. He let the bag fall limp again hastily and straightened up. “Who else knows about this?” He gestured at it the bag with his chin.

“Besides me and Mickey? The motel manager inside,” Ian said, gesturing toward the street where the entrance to the dingy lodging faced, “he knows there was something in the bag, but he doesn’t know what exactly. I kind of freaked out on him.”

Tony nodded. “I’ll take care of him.” Ian wasn’t really sure what that meant, but he was already trusting Tony to take care of the feet. He supposed he could handle one squirrel motel manager too.

While Ian and Mickey watched, Tony took a deep breath and grabbed the loose plastic bottom of the bad and yanked, like a magician clearing a table cloth but trying to leave the cutlery intact. The feet fell out, rolling once or twice before settling on the edge of the curb, somehow landing slotted neatly together like a pair of new shoes in a box.

Ian gasped, and Mickey yelped, yanking Ian back. “Jesus, a little fucking warning next time, maybe?”

Tony balled up the now-empty garbage bag in his hands and handed it to Mickey. “It has your fingerprints all over it. Get rid of it.”

“But wouldn’t it also have the fingerprints of whoever put the feet in there to begin with, too?” Ian asked. He hated thinking that they might be throwing away evidence that might be useful to connect whoever had killed the second girl to the crime. The second girl deserved more than to have the evidence of her murder tampered with just so Ian could save his own ass.

Tony shook his head. “It’s too big of a risk,” he said.

“He’s right, Ian,” Mickey said, grudgingly.

Ian bit his lip, looking at Mickey’s hands as he balled the bag smaller and smaller. But Ian didn’t object, and he felt like shit about it.

Tony was watching them. “Alright, you guys need to get out of here.” He threw a thumb back at his cruiser. “I need to radio this in.” He paused, resting a hand on Ian’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about this, Ian. I’ll take care of it.”

Ian blinked, still in disbelief that Tony was voluntarily risking his job to help them. “Tony,” he said, his voice catching. “Thank you.”

For a brief minute, Tony grinned, looking boyish in the dim light from the streetlamp. “Who knows, maybe I’ll get a promotion for finding evidence for an open homicide investigation.”

“Ian, let’s go,” Mickey said, pulling on Ian’s sleeve. Tony watched them walk back to the car and drive away, disappearing in the rearview mirror as Mickey turned the corner.

Mickey drove them slowly back to the apartment, and Ian couldn’t find it in him to complain about the glacial pace. No one spoke the whole ride.

At home, Mickey made lasagna, but neither of them was hungry.

“You should still try to eat some of it, man,” Mickey tried, but Ian just shook his head.

“I can’t,” Ian said. It did smell really good, but every time he went to take a bite, he saw feet in a bag and recoiled. “I’m sorry.”

Mickey made a face. “Don’t be sorry,” he said. “Jeez. You don’t have to be sorry.”

He ended up wrapping it in plastic wrap and sticking it in the fridge. He watched Ian like a hawk for the rest of the night until Ian couldn’t take it anymore and they both went to bed, curling up together and passing out from tense exhaustion.

The next morning passed like a haze, both of them too shaken to do much but hang around the apartment, silently watching game shows, sitting close enough that they were always touching at the shoulders or hips or knees. Ian took comfort in the contact. It made him feel slightly less off-kilter, even if it still felt like he was going slowly insane.

He kept expecting to hear cops pounding at the door at any second, ready to haul him and Mickey away, but when the knocks never came, he settled into a state of perpetual, low-level anxiety.

Around four o’clock that afternoon, Ian’s phone chirped. When he looked at the text message, he recognized the name and number of a trick that had been trying to set up an appointment with him for weeks. Absurdly grateful for the distraction, Ian scrolled through the message, noting the details. The trick wanted to meet at their usual spot, an address on the West Side. Ian thought of the secret pocket in the bottom of his backpack that now held twenty bucks. He had seven dollars in his wallet, mostly in loose change. This trick was a regular client, usually friendly and easy to please. Ian knew he should confirm the appointment. Still, he hesitated to respond.

As he stared at his phone, debating, Mickey’s phone rang.

“Hey, Uncle Ronnie,” Mickey said when he pressed it to his ear. “Yeah, sorry, I meant to call this morning but it slipped my mind.” He took a breath. “Well, last night was a little crazy. Ian got another…he was at a motel and he found…fuck, he found a pair of severed feet,” he said in a rush, and Ian figured there wasn’t really any way to soften the impact.

He listened as Mickey gave a brief description of what had gone down the day before. He skated pretty neatly over the details surrounding Ian calling Tony for help, which Ian thought was a good call. He still couldn’t decide if trusting Tony was a smart move, if trusting anyone was smart. He was pretty sure Ronnie wouldn’t think so.

Mickey was frowning into the phone in confusion now. “What? Oh. Okay. Christ, I don’t have an attitude, I just—fine, we’ll be there in an hour.”

When he hung up, he turned to Ian.

“Ronnie wants us to come over,” Mickey said. He was still frowning. “For family dinner.”

Ian tilted his head in question. “Do you guys usually have family dinner on Thursdays?” It was the first he was hearing of it.

Mickey snorted. “We have family dinners never. Ronnie’s being weird. I think he wants to grill us for more information,” he said.

“Are you sure I should really be coming to family dinner?” Ian asked.

“Oh, I’m sure. Ronnie specifically requested that you attend.” Mickey sounded annoyed now.

“If that’s what he said,” Ian said, uncertain. He looked at the text message on his phone one last time and clicked the phone shut, sliding it back into his pocket.

They walked to Ronnie’s apartment, and even though it took forty minutes, neither of them wanted to sit on a bus. Ian could admit it felt good to feel the cool afternoon air on his cheeks.

When they reached Ronnie’s condo building, Ian took a deep breath. He felt unaccountably nervous.

“You cool?” Mickey asked, noticing.

Ian nodded. “Let’s do this thing,” he said, and together they walked up the stairs to the building and Mickey buzzed to be let up.

When she opened the door to Ronnie’s condo, Mandy had an eyebrow raised so high it nearly touched her hairline. “Welcome to the fucking Milkovich family dinner,” she said. “If this is a thing Uncle Ronnie does every week, I’m out. I’ve got my own life to lead.”

Ian saw Mickey roll his eyes heavily and shoulder past Mandy into the condo.

“Hey,” Ian said as she stepped aside to let him in. She grinned at him, surprisingly friendly, he thought.

“How you doing?” she asked, and the question was so on the nose Ian heard himself cackle helplessly.

“Pretty shitty, actually,” he said when he finally quieted down.

Mandy was giving him a look, but luckily she didn’t press as to why Ian was laughing like a rogue who had tied the heroine to a set of railroad tracks and followed him into the condo.

The condo was nice, spic and span and filled with simple, tasteful furniture. It smelled like pot roast and Ian’s stomach growled. He’d only had a bowl of cereal that morning, still feeling too queasy to tackle the lasagna in the fridge.

Ronnie was sitting at the kitchen table, Colin bringing in a wide platter of roast meat and vegetables from the kitchen.

“Hey, Colin,” Ian said, feeling nervous, but Colin just gave him the “Sup” head nod and set the platter at the table as Mandy sat on Ronnie’s other side.

Mickey was already sitting, so Ian decided to follow his lead and join him, trying not to be too conspicuous when he let his shoulder brush against Mickey’s for comfort.

Despite Mickey’s suspicions that Ronnie wanted to shake them down for information in person, it was a relatively pleasant dinner free of murder talk, which Ian deeply appreciated. Mandy and Colin ganged up on Mickey mercilessly, who acted cranky but Ian could tell he didn’t hate the attention. Ronnie didn’t speak much, letting the Milkovich siblings chatter to one another. Ian mostly stayed out of it too, content to eat and listen to them bicker.

Ian volunteered to help do dishes, but Ronnie held up a hand, stopping him.

“What were you doing at the motel?” Ronnie asked, apropos of nothing. It took Ian a minute to understand what he was talking about, because dinner had been so pleasant up until then he'd almost forgotten the hell of last night. He felt like an idiot for letting his guard down, because of course Mickey’s uncle had just been lulling them into a false sense of security with delicious pot roast the whole time. It had been an ambush. Curses.

Ian glanced at Mandy, wondering how much she knew about what was going on, but Colin and Mickey didn’t seem worried so he guessed there were no secrets in Uncle Ronnie’s Condo.

“I was staying there before I moved in with Mickey,” Ian explained.

But Ronnie looked skeptical. “Really? You weren’t working?”

Ian froze with his glass of water halfway to his mouth. It was the closest Ronnie had ever come to directly referencing Ian and hooking, and Ian did his best to keep his eyes from going wide. He felt Mickey go still beside him.

“No,” he said stiffly. “I was picking up some clothes I’d left behind.”

Ian didn’t mention that he hadn’t met a trick in close to two weeks, or that he was considering turning down the offer of easy money in the form of the waiting text message on his phone. Part of that was his own reticence to leave the house alone, he knew, but he was coming to realize it was also because of his own disinterest in meeting tricks in general. It made him uncomfortable to admit to himself (like he was going soft, like he was a bad hooker, as fucked up and backwards as that was) that he didn’t want to sleep with anyone else right now. That he only wanted to sleep with one person.

“We need to find you another job, kiddo,” Ronnie said suddenly.

Everyone at the table went still. Colin and Mandy looked at each other, but Ian barely noticed them, more focused on Ronnie, who was watching Ian pointedly.

“What are you talking about?” Mickey asked carefully. Underneath the table, his knee pressed against Ian’s.

“I’m talking about how Ian can’t go around meeting up with strangers anymore,” Ronnie said, his tone characteristically placid, turning to speak to Ian again. “Whoever’s doing this, he was already able to lure you into a motel room to leave you another message without even trying. Imagine what he could do if he really wanted to hurt you.”

Ronnie made it sound like Ian was some stupid damsel in distress who couldn’t be counted on to see through some shadowy villain’s evil machinations. Which, okay, maybe wasn’t too far from the truth, but it also made Ian immediately defensive.

“It’s just a job, I can be careful,” he said.

“You can be even more careful if you’re not meeting strangers,” Ronnie said repeated.

“They’re not strangers, I’m not working a fucking street corner,” Ian said irritably, even though he didn’t want to try and explain forums and message boards and the tedious, unsexy details of working as a hooker without a pimp to Mickey’s uncle right now.

“Ian should be able to do he wants,” Mickey cut in loyally.

But Ian wasn’t sure if Mickey really believed that, or if he was just getting caught up in the wave of the argument. Lord knew he loved to bicker.

He shot him a sharp glance anyway, unaccountably irritated that Mickey was butting in. Mickey raised his eyebrows: what?, and Ian raised his back: stay out of this.

“I need to work,” Ian said stubbornly, turning back to Ronnie.

Ronnie was focused on Mickey, though. “You really feel that way?” he asked him.

“He’s a grown-ass man, he doesn’t need me to tell him what to do,” Mickey said heatedly, but he was looking down at the table, not meeting Ronnie’s eyes.

“He’s not a grown-ass man, he’s a kid,” Ronnie replied. “Just like you, Mick. You’re both kids and I don’t think either of you understand how high the stakes are here.”

“I understand the stakes just fine,” Ian said, annoyed that Ronnie and Mickey were talking about him like he wasn’t there. “I’m the one that found the fucking feet.”

Ronnie tried a different tact. “I don’t want to tell you how to run your life,” he said.

“Yes, you do,” Ian insisted. “And you’re not my uncle, man. I’ve got my own goddamn family.”

“I’m aware of that.” Ronnie leaned forward a little. “And if your family were here, they’d probably say the same thing I am: you need to stay off the streets.”

What was most fucking annoying was that Ronnie was right, Lip had essentially told him the same thing, and Fiona would lose her mind if she knew what was going on, wherever the fuck she’d run off to.

But knowing Ronnie was right just made Ian angrier.

“I need to work,” he said again, his jaw aching from grinding his teeth. “I have no money. I can’t just sit on my ass all day.” He didn’t say how much he hated leeching off Mickey like a sponge, that he was terrified of the thought that he might, however unconsciously, be staying with Mickey because he needed a place to stay, not just because he wanted to be with Mickey. That he was worried that after fucking around for money this long, he wouldn’t be good enough for any other job.

“So get another job,” Ronnie said, like he could read Ian’s mind. He sounded irritated even as his voice remained level.

Ian wasn’t sure why he was so defensive about something he wasn’t even actively doing at the moment. He could even appreciate that he was being an ungrateful asshole. But he also knew that sitting here as Mickey’s uncle casually told him how to rearrange his life was making him vibrate with anger.

He stood up from the table, unable to sit still. “You say that like it’s so fucking easy,” he said.

Mickey held up both hands in a peacekeeping gesture. “No one’s saying it’s easy,” he said. “And no one’s saying Ian has to get another job.”

“I need to work, Mick,” Ian said, aware that he was repeating himself like he had a fucking nervous tic, but he was never at his most articulate during an argument. “How the hell else am I going to pay rent?”

“You don’t need to pay rent!” Mickey exclaimed, standing up so Ian wasn’t towering over him quite as much. “I never said you had to pay rent.”

“He’s right though, he needs to pull his weight,” Ronnie said. “It’s no good to sit around.”

Ian spun around. “I’m not just sitting around! I have a job, jesus.”

“This isn’t just about you anymore, you know,” Ronnie said. He gestured at Mickey, who was standing somewhat anxiously at Ian’s side. “What you choose to do on your own time—”

And all the euphemisms finally became too much for Ian. “What, you’re too good to just say it?”

Even as his face went red with humiliation, he also felt himself leaning into it. They might as well be fucking candid, he decided cheerlessly, especially if he was going to have to defend every mortifying, hateful detail of his life in the last two years. Even if spelling it out in front of Mickey made him feel sick.

He raised his eyebrow at Ronnie, who looked on coolly. “Too embarrassed to say the words?”

“Ian,” Mickey said quietly, touching Ian’s elbow, but he shook him off.

“I fuck other guys for a living,” Ian bit out. He threw his arms to the side. “There it is! Out in the open, so we all know what we’re talking about.”

Ronnie stood up abruptly. For all his vibrato, Ian felt himself take a step back at the unexpected display of emotion. It was the closest he had ever seen of Mickey’s uncle losing his cool.

Ronnie only took a step or two forward, but it felt like he was right in Ian’s face. “You think you can shock me, kid,” he said, so quietly Ian almost couldn’t hear him, “but there’s nothing about a scared, stubborn little kid that could possibly shock me.”

Ian could feel his hands shaking and he shoved them in his pockets so no one would see.

“Well, I’m working tonight,” Ian said defiantly. “I’m meeting someone in a few hours, actually. Because I need to work and I can take care of myself.”

“You are?” Mickey asked beside him. The quiet tone of his voice made Ian’s heart break a little, but he steeled himself. He had a point to make. He was having trouble remembering what that point was, but it was there. Somewhere.

“I think that’s a bad idea,” Ronnie said.

“You don’t know anything about my life,” Ian said. He hated how he could hear his voice wobble.

Instead of responding, Ronnie stared him down for a minute. Feeling weak, Ian glanced away, but fuck, it was like staring at an Easter Island statue, stoic and disappointed all at once.

Finally, Ronnie sighed. “You think you’re the first person in the world to find himself in over his head, Ian?”

“I don’t need your help,” Ian said reflexively.

For the first time he felt like maybe he understood Lip a little, understood the wild, self-destructive compulsion to resist any and all assistance in favor of standing on your own. Even if you were standing alone.

“Fine. Whatever you say,” Ronnie said. He sat back down, making his long fingers into a steeple in front of his chest.

Mandy and Colin were still sitting at the other end of the table, both wide-eyed and silent and shocked. Ian could feel Mickey at his side, could feel the way he was watching him determinedly, and suddenly he couldn’t stay in that condo another second.

“I have to go,” he said, wheeling around to leave before the sentence was completely out of his mouth.

For a brief, panicky moment, he didn’t think Mickey was leaving with him. Ian didn’t even have a key to the apartment, he would be stranded, but more than that, as the door to Ronnie’s condo slammed behind him, he was suddenly terrified that Mickey would choose to stay with his uncle rather than follow Ian as he stormed off. Which would be understandable, Ian reasoned miserably to himself, he was being a child.

But then he heard Mickey’s shoes squeak in the hallway as he jogged to catch up with Ian, silently matching his pace as they left the building.

He didn’t acknowledge it aloud, but something in his chest loosened in relief knowing Mickey was there, even if the wretched anger didn’t go away either.

 

****

 

It was a long, silent walk back to Mickey’s apartment from Ronnie’s place. On the walk home, Mickey got a text message from Ronnie: You're still coming with to help do the McKenzie job.

It wasn't a question, and Mickey knew there was no way out of it. It was a two-man job, Colin was no good at casing houses for a B&E, and Mickey knew most of the other guys were busy on other jobs tonight. He filed that bit of information into his head, too distracted by the tense redhead beside him to worry too much about it.

Far from dissipating, Mickey thought Ian’s anger seemed to only have increased. Sure enough, as soon as they were inside the apartment, he whirled on Mickey.

“I don’t need you to fight my battles for me, Mickey,” Ian said.

Mickey shut the door behind them, gaping at Ian a little. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“I can take care of myself,” Ian insisted.

“No one said you couldn’t, man,” Mickey said testily. “I just didn’t want…you shouldn’t have to face Ronnie all alone.” He didn’t say that the instinct to jump to Ian’s defense had been so reflexive he didn’t really remember deciding to do it. He just saw Ian’s tight, bleak expression, facing his uncle like some kind of tragic knight facing a dragon, and that was it. It was like a fugue state.

“I can take care of myself,” Ian repeated, making antsy laps across the living room floor.

Mickey rolled his eyes. “I know you can, asshole, but maybe you don’t have to do it alone anymore.”

Ian’s whole face screwed up. “What are you trying to say? We’re a couple now?” He laughed, the sound forced and shaky and not at all funny.

“Of course we are!” Mickey burst out, somewhat regretting it as soon as the words left his mouth when he saw Ian’s shocked expression.

But fuck, he wasn’t lying. He might know shit about relationships, and all he had for reference was his ridiculous infatuation with fucking Jimmy Carter years ago, but at no point in his life had he felt this keen, focused concern for someone else. He thought about Ian all the time, and sure he jerked off to thoughts of him and Ian getting naked and making out, but he also had these insistent, repetitive fantasies just about feeding the kid until his bony shoulders filled out, which didn’t feel casual at all. He felt the opposite of casual about Ian.

He couldn’t tell if Ian felt the same way, though. Especially when Ian seemed to be almost angry by what Mickey had said. He went back to pacing in the living room in sharp, jagged strides.

“Why would you even want to be with me, Mick?” he demanded angrily, throwing his hands in the air.

Mickey huffed. “Ian, come on—”

But Ian kept pressing. “I’m serious! Why? Just tell me one reason.”

Despite Mickey’s own tendency to bully, being bullied made him see red, and right now he felt his temper spiraling out of control. “Well, it’s a lot harder to remember the details when you’re busy being an asshole and I just want to strangle you with my bare hands, jackass!” Mickey shouted back.

Ian turned to him, and Mickey felt the shift like a sudden twist in the atmosphere. Ian’s eyes heated and he moved toward Mickey, crowding into his space.

“Can’t remember what you like about me?” Ian asked, sounding unfamiliar and a little dangerous. He wrapped his hand around the back of Mickey’s neck, jerking his head back a little. “I bet I can help you remember.”

Dazedly, his cheeks flushing in reaction, Mickey was struck by how determined Ian looked, like he was about to prove something important.

It was rougher than Ian had ever handled Mickey in the past. He shoved until Mickey’s back slammed against the wall next to the bedroom doorway, biting at the sensitive skin behind his ears and down his neck while Mickey threw his head back, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling and holding onto Ian’s shoulders, his heart hammering.

Ian panted into his ear. “You want to fuck me?” he said lowly. Mickey’s knees actually wobbled and he bit back a moan. “Or do you want me to fuck you? I’m good at it, I promise. Is that what you want?”

Mickey yanked himself back. “Jesus, no,” he said breathlessly, then caught himself, because that wasn’t strictly true. “I mean, maybe. I don’t know!” He shook his head, not in negation so much as frustration. “That’s not all I want from you, Ian.”

And then he could only stare into Ian’s eyes, a little desperately, trying to silently convey what his brain was too scrambled to verbalize.

Ian froze. His eyebrows knit together in consternation, like he was trying to get into Mickey’s head and untangle the thoughts inside. Mickey wished he could, it would make things a whole hell of a lot easier.

Finally Ian sighed, pressing his forehead to Mickey’s, and Mickey could feel as the intensity began to settle into something less frantic. He tilted his head and slotted his lips against Ian’s, pressing soft, biting kisses to his mouth.

Ian pulled away a little even while he kept a tight arm around Mickey’s waist, not breaking the kiss, dragging them both to collapse onto the couch together. Mickey leaned back so Ian had no choice but to sprawl across him.

It was an awkward angle, but Mickey managed to keep kissing Ian, each kiss deeper and more clinging than the last, as he snaked his hand down and unzipped Ian’s jeans, bringing his cock out and giving it a long, twisting stroke. Ian gasped into his mouth, so Mickey did it again, then again. Ian broke away to catch his breath, but kept his eyes locked on Mickey’s face as he reached forward and freed Mickey from his pants as well.

Unconsciously, Mickey pressed his nose to Ian’s temple, breathing him in. God, he smelled so fucking good.

Spitting into his hand (fuck, that shouldn’t be hot, but it was, it so was), Ian wrapped his wide, slightly rough palm around both of their cocks, the fit a little awkward but so, so good, jerking them off together. Mickey let his hand fall to the side but he felt like he was floating away, his whole body tingling at the stimulation. He reached forward and grabbed onto Ian’s face with both hands, needing the anchor.

Ian flushed and Mickey could actually feel the heat creeping up Ian's neck where his hands were grasping at his jaw. Ian’s eyes were wide and impossibly green, his pupils dilating before Mickey’s very eyes.

“Fuck, jesus,” Ian muttered, his panting breaths ghosting over Mickey’s face.

Mickey flew over the edge, coming hard as his back bowed.

He couldn’t help but think breathlessly to himself how fucking intense it was to come when you were staring into someone else’s eyes.

When he was too sensitive, Ian released his cock and stroked his own, the movements quick and jerky until he was coming too with a loud moan.

It took them a long time to get their heaving breaths under control. Ian reared up to pull his shirt over his head and used it to mop the come off Mickey’s chest, which struck Mickey as a weirdly gallant gesture. When they were both relatively clean of spunk, Ian tossed the shirt to the side and collapsed into the edge of the couch, still partially draped across Mickey’s body.

They were silent, both trying to inconspicuously wiggle closer to the other until their legs were tangled and their chests were pressed together.

“Ian,” Mickey said, because it was still important for him that Ian knew. “I know you can take care of yourself. You know that, right?”

Ian was quiet for a second, but he didn’t stop tracing his fingertips over Mickey’s forearm in a way that made him shiver. “I know.”

Mickey hesitated, trying to think of how best to ask what he wanted to know. Finally he gave up on sounding coy. “You still going to work tonight, man?”

Ian looked him in the eye. He looked sad, which Mickey hated. “I think so.” He glanced down. “I’m sorry.”

It made Mickey’s stomach drop, the sensation sharp and uncomfortable, but he pushed his own feelings out of the way and focused on Ian, who was still staring miserably at the corner of the couch cushion clenched in the fist that wasn’t stroking Mickey’s arm.

“Hey,” he said softly, looping an arm tighter around Ian’s waist and tugging gently until Ian was settled more firmly into his side. “It’s okay, man. I understand.” Mickey didn’t, not really, but he did understand that he didn’t want Ian to be upset, not about anything, but least of all about Mickey. “I mean, you gotta work, right? We all gotta work.”

When Ian didn’t respond, Mickey gave in to his stupid fucking emotions and cupped his hand around Ian’s jaw, drawing him close enough to urge Ian’s face into the crook of his neck. Ian shuddered a little and went limp.

“It’s okay, pal,” Mickey murmured into Ian’s soft red hair.

“Yeah?” Ian asked softly, hesitantly. He sounded so young in that moment.

“Yeah,” Mickey said firmly and was rewarded when Ian reached and tangled his hand in Mickey’s, knotting their fingers together.

He wanted to tell Ian to stay home. Sure, he didn’t want Ian sleeping with other guys, but above all, it didn’t seem like Ian really liked it very much. And the automatic, reflexive part of Mickey’s brain that immediately piped up whenever Ian was unhappy was urging Mickey to do something about it, but he wasn’t sure what.

“Can you do something for me?” he asked after a bit.

He felt Ian go still, making a careful “Hm?” sound.

“Can you let Colin drive you tonight, and bring you home after?”

He wanted to drive Ian himself (even if he thought it would probably make him physically ill to bring Ian anywhere knowing it was to help him get some asshole off) but he thought of Ronnie, of his stony face from earlier, and knew he couldn’t blow off the job tonight.

Ian didn’t say anything, but at least he wasn’t saying no offhand. Mickey squeezed his shoulder. “Again, I’m not saying you can’t take care of yourself. I’m just saying, after everything that happened last night, I’ll be going fucking crazy tonight if I know you’re out there by yourself.”

Ian leaned up so he could rest his hands on Mickey’s chest and prop his chin up. He eyed Mickey speculatively. “So this is just for your benefit?”

Mickey looked at him solemnly. “Yep. Just for me. Of course it’s for me, I don’t even like you that much. Who are you, again?”

Ian rolled his eyes, but he didn’t have that sad twist to his mouth anymore, which made Mickey feel a little triumphant.

“Plus, I might’ve also told Colin you’re really interested in getting into the daytime soaps,” he added, smirking now.

Ian groaned and sat up, using his forearm to rub his face. “That’s a low blow, man.”

Mickey sat up too and rearranged his jeans, then pulled out his phone and scrolled to Colin’s number. “So you’ll let him give you a ride?”

Ian pulled feet up so he could wrap his arms around his knees. “Fine, I guess.” he chewed on his lip. “Although I don’t think Colin’s really going to want to be around me, after I was such a dick at your uncle’s house.”

Mickey shrugged. “You weren’t a dick.” Ian gave him a look, so Mickey relented. “Okay, you were kind of a dick. But you’re going through some stuff, man. Everybody knows that.” He hit dial and waited as the phone rang. “Besides, Colin loves tending to wounded souls and shit. He’s a fucking softie.”

Ian gave him a weird look. “Mhm. Colin’s the softie.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said.” Mickey gave him a weird look right back, then went back to calling Colin to arrange a ride for Ian.

 

****

 

It was, to put it lightly, an awkward car ride, at least at first.

When Mickey left to help his uncle with tonight's mafia-adjacent job, Ian met Mickey's brother outside where he was sitting in the Oldsmobile playing a game on his phone. He looked up when Ian came to stand undecided at the door.

Colin reached across and turned the handle, popping the door open. “Hop in, dude. Time is money.”

Ian got in and put his seatbelt on uncomfortably. Colin watched him avidly.

“So,” he said after a beat. “Where am I going?”

Ian debated, and then gave in. "Humboldt Park," he said, and Colin pulled away from the curb.

They were silent at first, Colin driving unreasonably fast on the dark city streets, and Ian couldn’t take it for long.

“I’m sorry for fucking up family dinner,” he blurted out after only a few blocks.

Colin laughed in surprise. “Well, I think family dinner is kind of a strong term to describe a single, one-time ambush of a pot roast, but whatever.” He looked at Ian out of the corner of his eye. “And you didn’t fuck up anything. You surprised the shit out of Mandy, maybe.”

“I yelled at your uncle,” Ian argued. He didn’t know why it was so important that he convince Mickey’s brother that he was, in fact, an asshole, but the more Colin tried to play it off, the more Ian pushed. “He’s just trying to help me, and I fucking threw it back in his face.”

“Well, just because someone offers help doesn’t mean you’re obligated by law to take it,” Colin said reasonably, cutting off another driver to speed through a yellow light.

“Yeah, but maybe sometimes you should be,” Ian said mulishly. “I mean, I’m going to work tonight. That’s stupid. I’m being stupid.”

Colin tilted his head to the side, considering. “Maybe,” he allowed.

Colin must be great with kids and dogs, Ian thought, because he was clearly some kind of patient, non-judgmental magician. The less Colin pushed, the more Ian found himself telling the truth, helplessly. It was maddening.

Almost as proof, he heard himself volunteering, “I should’ve just kept my fucking mouth shut at dinner.” He blinked. Who the fuck said that?

“Ronnie can be pretty pushy,” Colin said with a shrug. “I mean, I think he’s right in this case.” He glanced at Ian and raised his eyebrow. “Like, really right. Seriously, I think you should just give what he’s saying another thought and let me drive you back to Mickey’s…” Seeing Ian’s expression turn stubborn again, he trailed off. “But like you said, he’s also not your uncle. You got family of your own.”

Ian made a face. “Okay, cut the bullshit. Why are you being so nice to me?”

Colin cracked a grin. “You always this cagey?” he asked mildly. Ian didn’t answer, just stared, and Colin shrugged again. “I don’t know, dude. Mickey likes you. He doesn’t like a lot of people. There must be something about you that’s worth liking.”

“Jesus,” Ian muttered under his breath, feeling his mouth twist.

“Hey, I know it’s a gay thing to say,” Colin said defensively, then he winced. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

Ian rolled his eyes. “Whatever, man.” He sighed. “It’s cool.”

“I’ll just say stupid next time,” Colin assured him.

“Okay, Colin.”

“I won’t say gay.”

“I said it’s cool, Colin.”

But when he glanced over, he saw Colin grinning teasingly, and in spite of himself, Ian relaxed a little. Maybe Mickey was right; Colin was a big softie. Just like Mickey, he thought with a private grin all his own.

After that, they rode in silence, Ian giving out directions occasionally. They were getting close to the five-way stop closest to the spot where he usually met tonight’s trick.

“Which way do I turn?” Colin asked.

Ian made a split-second decision. “Go left on Milwaukee,” he said, turning them in the opposite direction of the trick.

He didn’t really understand what he was doing, why he was guiding Colin deeper into Humboldt Park and away from the promise of easy money, but he tried to keep his face impassive regardless.

Eventually, he told Colin to pull over, so he could drop him off in a parking lot behind a bank. Colin frowned uneasily. “Here?” he asked. “Really?”

Ian nodded. “It’s just around the corner.” He unbuckled his seatbelt. “It should only be a couple hours. I’ll text you when I’m done and you need to come back to pick me up.”

Colin nodded. “Okay, if that’s how it works.” He pulled out a magazine. Ian thought he saw the cover of People. “I’ll just wait here, though.” Ian nodded at that, trying not to show his relief that at least Colin would be nearby.

He got out of the car and walked around the corner until he was out of sight of the Oldsmobile. Glancing around at the empty sidewalk, he pushed open a familiar glass door. Inside, it smelled like breakfast food.

It was the diner where Ian had bought Mickey pancakes that first night. Now as then, there were only a handful of people inside. He took the booth in the back.

A waitress with bright, dyed red hair came to take his order. “What’ll you have, sweetheart?” she asked.

“Just coffee,” Ian said.

“Anything for a fellow redhead,” she said self-deprecatingly, winking, and Ian tried to smile back.

As he sat alone in the diner, he decided to take stock.

This was the first time he’d actively lied about hooking, and rather than lying that he didn’t hook, he was keeping up some bizarre charade that was just the opposite. Mickey thought he was with a trick, Ian had openly defied Mickey’s uncle and insisted he was going to keep hooking, and yet here he was, drinking burnt coffee in a diner instead. He didn’t have an explanation for it (although if he let himself really consider it, all he saw was Mickey's face and it made something shiver inside him) so he set it aside.

Aside from that, someone was definitely stalking him. With the bodies, and the hands on the doorstep, Ian had still been able to plausibly deny his connection to an extent. Sure, it was a pretty big fucking coincidence, but then, Chicago had a lot of murders. Maybe it was possible that he just had terrible luck.

Now, though, it was impossible to deny. The feet had been in a bag of his clothes. Someone had gone to the trouble to hide them for him, somewhere he was bound to find them. The thought made him twitch in his booth.

His phone chirped and for a second he worried it was the trick he was blowing off, then breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Svetlana’s name.

He read her message: how much do you love me

Ian smirked, and replied: a little bit

Svetlana sent a message back almost immediately: you should love me more than little I have second girl’s name.

Ian felt his jaw drop open: you fucking kidding me

Svetlana didn’t bother with a direct response, instead sending the name back: Felicia Ramirez

Ian sat back in the booth, wondering how in god’s name Svetlana had managed to dig up that information. Once again, he was overwhelmed by the lengths to which all the people in his life were going above and beyond the call of duty to help him out. Even fucking Ronnie, with his fucking annoying, fucking pushy, fucking accurate advice, was doing more than Ian probably deserved.

He wished he knew how to stop being such an asshole about accepting help.

He sent Svetlana a final message: I lied I love you a lot

He felt a brief moment of excitement, of hope, because they had the second girl’s name. They had way more information than Ian had ever thought possible. They were getting somewhere.

But what did that mean, his brain immediately argued, that a couple of dumb teenagers had the identities of two Jane Does? It meant jackshit, he though unhappily. What if the police still didn’t know the girls’ names, not Harriet Bell, let alone Felicia Ramirez? What then? Ian was just supposed to sit on this information while he tried to stay a step ahead of some asshole who was methodically trying to drive Ian out of his mind with fear? Where did that leave Harriet and Felicia?

The endless questions were making his head hurt and he rubbed his face over his hand tiredly. He thought of Tony the night before. He remembered how he had been willing to help. Maybe Ian needed to rely more on the cops he knew he could trust.

As he sipped his coffee, he pulled a business card out of his wallet. He spun it in his fingers, considering. He glanced around to confirm he was the only person in his quiet corner of the diner. The closest person was the hostess, halfway across the room. He let out a long, slow exhale, and dialed the number on the card.

Detective Johnson picked up after three rings. “Who is this?” She sounded groggy.

“It’s Ian.” Then added, “Gallagher,” just in case.

There was a pause. “Are you okay?”

Ian rushed to reassure her, somewhat disingenuously. “Yes, I’m fine, sorry. Everything’s okay.”

Now Johnson sounded irritated. “Do you have any idea what time it is?”

Ian glanced at the bright plastic clock on the wall of the diner. “It’s only ten,” he said.

Johnson muttered something unintelligible about teenagers and unhealthy circadian rhythms, and Ian could hear rustling on the other end of the line, like she was sitting up in bed. “What are you calling me for, Ian?”

Ian tried to think of the best way to ask, tried to channel Lip and be sneaky about it, but in the end he was just as blunt as always. “I wanted to know if you’d had any progress on the Jane Doe case from Michigan Avenue,” he said.

He could hear Johnson sigh into the phone. “You know I can't discuss an open investigation with you, Ian," she said. "You do know that, right?"

“What about the girl from Humboldt Park, then?” Ian pressed, switching tactics. “I read she was missing her hands. It reminded me of the girl on Michigan Avenue, you know.” He swallowed. “With the feet.”

“How do you know about the girl in Humboldt Park?” Johnson asked slowly.

Ian took a leap. “O’Reilly told me, when he dragged me into questioning. He told me you guys still didn’t know anything about her.” Ian was kind of impressed with how plausible that lie sounded. O'Reilly seemed like the type to accidentally leak sensitive information, because he was an asshole.

He heard Johnson swear. “That fucking irresponsible, unprofessional—”

“Her name was Harriet Bell,” he said in a rush.

“What?”

“The girl in Humboldt Park. Her name was Harriet Bell.” Ian knew he sounded desperate, but in a way he was. It was one thing to play detective with his big brother and delude himself into thinking he could handle investigating a murder, but Harriet Bell deserved more. If the cops didn’t already know her name, they needed to know now. He was willing to take the risk if it meant helping them help her.

He could almost hear Lip and Mickey in his head, in a strange mutant conglomeration of both their voices, telling him he was being fucking stupid.

“Ian,” Johnson said sharply, “how do you know that?”

“A friend of mine knew her. That was her name, right?”

He could feel Felicia Ramirez’s name bubbling on the tip of his tongue, he knew it was only a matter of time before he was babbling that out too, but Johnson beat him to the punch.

“Ian,” she said again. Her voice was deadly serious. “You cannot call me about this anymore. You need to hang up the phone.”

“I just wanted to help—”

“You cannot call me about that case again,” she repeated. She paused. “You’re literally inches away from implicating yourself. Probably closer than that.”

Ian went silent. Johnson didn’t hang up, and they sat in silence.

“The police are taking care of this, buddy,” she said after a while. “I know it’s hard to believe sometimes, when you’re on the outside of an investigation, but trust me. We have it under control.”

Then why the fuck am I finding hands and feet and dead bodies everywhere, Ian screamed internally.

Out loud, he coughed. “I’m sorry for waking you up.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “But you should get to sleep too.”

“Okay,” he said. “Bye.”

“Goodbye, Ian.”

When he hung up, he sat still as a statue in his booth, not moving until the waitress came by and startled him when she offered more coffee. He said no thank you, ignoring the concerned look she sent his way until she finally relented and walked away.

He was almost done with his cup of coffee. Grimacing, he downed the last dregs at the bottom and pulled out his cell phone. Hesitating only for an instant, he sent Ned a text message, the first in nearly nine months: hey how’s it going can we meet?

All the tasks he could think of completed, he stood and stretched. Only an hour had passed, but he threw some bills on the table and walked outside anyway, heading around the corner to where Colin was waiting in the bank parking lot.

Colin looked up when Ian opened the car door and got in. He looked surprised. “That was quick,” he said. Then he shrugged good-naturedly. “Or maybe it wasn’t. I have no idea.”

Ian huffed out a laugh. “Thanks for driving me tonight, Colin,” he said, and Colin waved a hand dismissively.

“Don’t mention it, man,” he said. He went to turn up the radio and smiled broadly. “Shit, I love Katy Perry.”

Thankfully, Colin was happy to sing along off-key to top 40 hits on the ride home and Ian was free to slump in his seat, lost in thought until they pulled up to the curb in front of Mickey’s building.

Colin clapped him on the shoulder and said good night, then waited for Ian to get inside like a soccer mom dropping off a neighborhood kid after practice, which Ian secretly appreciated. He buzzed to be let up, hoping Mickey was back from his job, and was relieved when the loud buzz sounded in return.

The apartment door was unlocked and he let himself in quietly, the lights already off inside. He locked the door Mickey had apparently left open when he buzzed Ian in and headed to the bedroom. Mickey was staring at the ceiling with his hands behind his head, his gaze unfocused, the shadows of the dark bedroom catching the planes of his face.

When he caught sight of Ian, he sat upright abruptly. “You’re back,” he said lamely.

“Sure am,” Ian said back, equally lamely. He tried to smile but it felt weird on his face, so he stopped. Instead, he pulled his shirt over his head and kicked off his shoes, yanking off his pants in a hurried motion until he was just in his boxers and could crawl up the bed and lay beside Mickey. Mickey settled down too so they were face to face. Their feet tangled under the sheets.

“I’ve been such an asshole today,” Ian whispered after a while.

Mickey rolled his eyes.

“I just don’t know if I can do any other job besides hooking,” Ian added.

Mickey rolled his eyes again, if possible, harder.

“You’re going to hurt your eyes if you keep doing that,” Ian told him.

With a snort, Mickey reached a hand out and cupped Ian’s cheek. “How’d tonight go?” It was obvious he didn’t want details, but Ian appreciated the effort.

Ian turned his head so his cheek was more firmly tucked into Mickey’s palm. “It was okay,” he said evasively. “I’m glad Colin drove me. Thanks for calling him.”

Mickey didn’t say anything. Instead, he leaned forward and pressed a soft, close-mouthed kiss to Ian’s lips. It was short, but Ian felt it all the way to his toes.

He blinked. His eyes were burning. He glanced away. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“Stop apologizing,” Mickey said gruffly. He brought the hand on Ian’s cheek down so it wrapped around Ian’s waist, pulling him closer. “Go to sleep.”

Ian scooted closer, pressing his face into Mickey’s neck and inhaling deeply. Mickey’s familiar scent was calming, and Ian closed his eyes, trying to go to sleep. Maybe it was the coffee from the diner, but after a little bit he started squirming. He wasn’t sure if Mickey was already asleep or not, but Ian couldn’t stop tossing and turning, trying not to bother Mickey.

Unsuccessfully, it seemed.

“Would you chill,” Mickey grumbled finally. Ian opened his mouth to protest, but Mickey was quicker, stretching out his arms and legs and wrapping Ian up like a grumpy, sleepy octopus.

“Mick—” Ian squawked in protest, but Mickey twisted, trapping Ian half-under his body.

“Be still,” Mickey commanded.

Ian huffed a little, still struggling. “I’m just—”

“Sleep,” Mickey mumbled. He rubbed his cheek sleepily against Ian’s neck. “Sleep, for the love of god.”

And Ian couldn’t help himself. He started to giggle. “You’re so bossy,” he tried to say, the words mostly lost as he snorted.

“Your face is bossy,” Mickey said, already half-asleep. Ian could feel him smiling against his shoulder.

At first, Ian could’ve sworn there was no way he would be falling asleep too, even with Mickey on top of him. He was still wide awake, he swore.

Gradually, though, almost without him noticing, he felt his eyes begin to droop. He fought it a little, but it was futile, he decided with a sleepy sigh.

So he let himself drift. The sound of Mickey snoring softly next to his ear, his heart beating practically on top of Ian’s, lulled him slowly, but inexorably, to sleep.

Chapter Text

Mickey was surfing the internet for porn, and it was going poorly. Mostly he was trying not to freak himself out, trying to resist squirming too deep into the darker corners of the internet.

Nevertheless, he knew he was making faces Colin and Mandy would piss themselves laughing at (and his other brothers would too, for that matter, but he doubted Iggy and Joey would be quite as good-natured in their teasing, could almost hear the mean curl of their voices, but he shook himself because fuck them, he was on a mission here).

It was early morning, the sun just starting to filter into the apartment to make dim shadows on the faded carpet. Mickey kept glancing behind him at the slightly ajar door to the bedroom. He’d left Ian curled up in the corner of the mattress, looking calm and angelic in sleep, so Mickey could sneak over to the couch and have a mosey around for some educational porn.

This plan had been on his mind for a few weeks, but it wasn’t like he was overflowing with free alone time these days. Which he didn’t mind, not at all, hanging out with Ian, and making out with Ian, and laughing and teasing and cuddling (damnit he was blushing just thinking the lame words in the privacy of his own mind) were all startlingly enjoyable. But it also meant he didn’t have time to conduct any research on his own to start shortening what was becoming more and more obvious was a sizeable experience gap.

He could theoretically ask Ian, he knew that. Theoretically. But he also knew that he wanted to bring a little proprietary knowledge to the table himself.

So there he was, early morning, game show on mute on the TV in front of him, balancing coffee in one hand and hesitantly typing out embarrassing search terms (tall guy fucks short guy you can tell they like each other though) with the other as quietly as he could.

It was all very weird. Well, not all of it. Some of it was better than others, he could definitely feel his cock getting interested, but he had trouble keeping his head in the game. Like, he could objectively appreciate the hotness of some big muscled guy railing a smaller man who was gasping and whining for his cock (or at least he assumed that’s what the bottom was mouthing, again, his volume was conspicuously turned off, so he could only speculate), but he had a hard time keeping an interest because he didn’t know these people. He didn’t really give a shit if they got off or not, because he didn’t know who they were, or what they were to each other. Probably nothing, they were actors. It made the expression on his face scrunch up even more. Did the actors being emotionally into each other matter to any other porn-seeking man or woman in the universe? He doubted it. Man, but he was a priss.

He mentally smacked himself over the head. He wasn’t trying to find some fucking romance novel except with explicit gay sex playing out in video form (Were there websites for stuff like that? There probably weren’t websites for stuff like that. Jesus, focus, Mickey.), he was trying to educate his ignorant ass over here.

He wanted to know more about taking it up the ass. Like, what did you have to do, specifically, to make that happen? He found himself clicking through a tornado of video clips of dudes fingering other dudes, stretching them out, pumping fingers deep into pink, flexing holes, and while he wasn’t necessarily getting off on it, he was also mesmerized, thinking of how good it felt when he fingered himself, or how mind-blowing and inexplicably better it had been when it was Ian’s fingers inside him.

And the guys in the videos seemed to be enjoying it, that was for damn sure, Mickey thought, watching them gasp and twitch and pant silently.

He let one video play longer than the rest, caught off-guard by the dark red hair of the one guy fingering the other. The color was much darker than Ian’s, almost auburn, but Mickey thought that was better. Otherwise it felt too weird getting hard watching Ian’s porn doppelganger while he was asleep in the next room.

The guy with the fingers shoved up his ass (the bottom he supposed) was grinning, which Mickey liked a lot more than the other guys who tried so hard to make pleasured faces it looked painful. This guy looked like he was almost laughing he felt so good, giddy with what the redheaded guy was making him feel, and he couldn’t stop looking over his shoulder from his position propped up on his elbows, eyeing the guy behind him, mutely urging him on with words Mickey couldn’t hear.

And then he was distracted by the face of the guy doing the fingering. It definitely wasn’t the focus of most of the videos he had been perusing, the cameraman always seemed much more focused on various angles of assholes, free of context or distraction, but in this video the shot panned back far enough for Mickey to study the top’s face, the intent, absorbed look in his eye, his mouth slack as he fingered the bottom almost reverently.

Mickey thought of the look on Ian’s face when he touched him, when he pressed their foreheads together and seemed completely focused on making Mickey feel good.

He pressed the heel of his hand to his cock as it hardened swiftly behind his thin boxers. The video on the laptop went a little hazy, his focus turning inward, thinking about the last time Ian played with his ass, about how he could work up to asking Ian to do it again.

The image on the video stuttered, then froze, buffering lazily, bringing his attention back to the people on screen.

“Goddamnit,” he muttered, his hand stilling against his cock. Fucking old-ass laptop.

“You’re up early.”

Mickey made a loud yelping sound and slapped the computer shut, shoving it onto the floor as he spun around. Ian was stumbling out of the bedroom, rubbing his eyes blearily. His hair was disheveled and his face was puffy and he looked absolutely adorable, goddamnit.

“Uh, yeah,” Mickey said, hoping he didn’t sound as breathless as he felt. “Couldn’t sleep.”

Ian collapsed on the couch beside him, making him wobble with the violent movement of the cushions. Ian blinked sleepily, eyeing the silent TV.

“Is that Wheel of Fortune?” he asked. He turned to Mickey with a smile. “Does Jeopardy know you’re cheating on it? Alex Trebek is going to be heartbroken.”

“Hey, fuck you, man,” Mickey said half-heartedly, shoving Ian a little but also rearranging so his boner was slightly less obvious.

Ian was watching him now, and Mickey couldn’t get the image of the last video out of his mind, how Ian might look if Mickey turned around and got on his knees and watched over as his shoulder as Ian just wrecked him.

Even as Mickey stared resolutely forward at the TV, he saw Ian move out of the corner of his eye. He felt long arms wrap around his chest in front, trapping his arms to his sides as Ian pulled so Mickey lay more or less splayed back against Ian, Ian’s knees on either side of him, caging him in.

Mickey let himself relax into Ian’s body. Ian brought up a hand to run it through Mickey’s hair.

“What’s going on in that weird little head of yours?” he murmured against Mickey’s temple, sounding so fond Mickey actually squirmed.

“Nothing,” Mickey muttered. Because that was easier to say than, I was just looking up some porn so I could feel less like a stupid fucking clueless virgin, but enough about me, how did you sleep?

“Yeah?” Ian answered evenly, like he could almost hear the words Mickey was too discomfited to voice. “You know, you can talk to me about stuff.”

I want to have sex with you. I want you to fuck me.

“What kind of stuff?” Mickey replied, in what he hoped was an equally even voice.

Ian nodded his head back and forth thoughtfully. “General stuff. I mean, it doesn’t always have to be about me and my weird life. Like, how did work with your uncle go the other night?”

It took Mickey a second, but he thought Ian was probably talking about the job the night of the disastrous family dinner at Ronnie’s. He had to scroll back to even recall the details. Sometimes it was hard to remember the rest of his life, the moments he was with Ian so Technicolor and bright that they drowned out the dull tone of everything else. It was like a fever. He didn’t know if that was normal. He had the strangest stray urge to ask Mandy about it.

“It was okay,” Mickey said finally. “This guy owed Ronnie money, but he knows him from way back so he couldn’t really send me or Colin or someone else to beat it out of him, so we had to kind of break in and steal some electronics. Guy had a sweet-ass TV, shit.” He paused, noticing Ian’s intent impression, and felt suddenly shy. “I mean, same old shit, I guess. Pretty boring.”

Ian laughed. “Work is work, man. That’s why they call it work. I just like hearing about what you do all day.” Mickey wondered if that was how Ian felt about his work, if it had the same blasé feel as the endless, generally mindless tasks Mickey performed for his uncle. It comforted Mickey, that hooking was just as mundane to Ian as working any other dumb job. It made him dare to hope that it would be easier for Ian to give it up, one day.

Ian leaned back a little so he was facing Mickey more directly. “Is your uncle still pissed at me?”

Mickey sighed. He didn’t really know how to answer that without taking sides. He was instinctively on Ian’s side, but he also knew academically that his uncle was mostly right. It also made his skin feel like it was crawling at the thought of bad-mouthing Ronnie.

Noticing his hesitation, Ian pulled back a little. “Never mind, man. That was a stupid thing to ask. Of course he’s still mad at me. Shit.”

Mickey leaned toward him a little, eating up the sudden distance. “He’s not a middle school cheerleader, he doesn’t hold grudges or anything. He’s not mad at you, he’s….”

“Not mad, just disappointed,” Ian supplied with a wry grin.

Mickey rolled his eyes, but tilted his head a little. “Well, yeah. Besides, Ronnie’s never happier than when he’s solving a problem, and all this shit going on with you…it’s a pretty big fucking problem.”

Ian nodded, chewing his lip. “Tell me about it,” he muttered absently. “Speaking of.” He released Mickey from his arms and turned to grab his phone from where it was charging beside the couch. “Various developments.”

Noting the sudden chill without Ian’s warm arms around him, Mickey braced himself, arching an eyebrow. “Hit me.”

Ian counted it off on his fingers as he read through the messages on his phone. “Lip called the number he found for Harriet Bell, and he got a hold of her mom.”

Mickey watched Ian pause, chewing his lip in the distracted way he had. Things had been tense between Ian and his brother, and Mickey felt vaguely guilty about that, even if it was nonsensical. Ian was cagey about it, insisting that Lip was just being a dick, but Mickey couldn’t help but remember how horrified Lip had been when he’d seen Mickey, like Mickey represented such a real, actual danger to Ian that Lip could barely believe it.

Still, Lip had continued to help Ian track down family for the first girl, which Mickey could respect. Guy was a dick, but he was a dick who was helping Ian, so Mickey figured it didn’t really matter what he felt about it.

Ian seemed to come back to himself, scratching his nose. “He told her we went to high school in Pilsen with her and we’re doing profiles for the school newspaper. Her mom said we could come by today or tomorrow, if we wanted, Lip says.”

“Clever little shit,” Mickey said, not without admiration.

“Well, I thought the whole ‘we’re doing a story for the school paper’ story was a little lame, but that’s Lip, I guess.” Ian held up another finger, but he seemed to freeze again as he stared at his phone.

“Are you broken?” Mickey asked after a pause.

Ian made a face. “Well, there’s a second thing, but I don’t think you’re going to like it.”

When he continued to stall, Mickey rolled his eyes. “Dude, while we’re young, here. Spit it out.”

“I heard back from Ned.”

The name didn’t immediately connect with anything in Mickey’s memory, although he did idly note it was a dumb fucking name.

“Ned,” he said blankly.

“Ned,” Ian repeated, and when he saw Mickey’s lack of recognition, “you know, remember Fiona’s boyfriend, Steve? The guy we saw outside the store? His dad.”

All at once, Mickey remembered that jackass who had thrown a temper tantrum on the sidewalk, and with increasing distaste, the knowledge that yet another of Ian’s old boyfriends was also old.

“Ned,” Mickey said again, this time with a curl of his lip. “Why the hell did you hear back from Ned?”

“Well, if Operation: Busting Skulls is still a go, he’s next on the list. He said he’s free to meet up later this week.” Ian was still worrying his lip with his teeth. “I mean, if you don’t want to come with, I can go on my own—”

Mickey groaned, waving a hand dismissively near Ian’s face. “Serious suggestions only, please.”

Ian huffed, swatting Mickey’s hand away. “Fine. I was just saying. I know this is weird for you.” He was frowning down at his lap. He looked defensive, but also embarrassed. What Mickey was becoming to think of as the Ian Expression Cocktail.

With a theatrical roll of his eyes, Mickey stood up, his boner now completely gone, thank god. “It’s not any weirder for me than it probably is for you, dude.” He felt antsy. He needed to cook something. “You want eggs and bacon or something?”

Ian nodded absently, scrolling through his phone. Mickey went to the kitchen to dig through the fridge while he digested the fact that he was going to have to see another creepy old man that had taken advantage of Ian. He hoped that at the very least, there would be more actual skull busting this time.

Meanwhile, Ian was holding up a third finger, speaking slightly louder from his spot on the couch so Mickey could hear him in the kitchen. “Svetlana found the name of the second girl.”

Mickey paused as he turned on the heat under a pan. “How the fuck did she manage that?” He could hear the reluctant respect in his own voice. Fucking commie nutjob could sniff out a lead, that was for sure.

Ian shrugged. “I’m not sure. I haven’t had a chance to ask her. She’s also a clever little shit, maybe more than Lip in her own way.” He heaved a heavy sigh. “I still have to tell her about the fucking feet. She’s going to flip. Goddamnit.”

Mickey was distracted by what a surreal statement that was. The feet. Christ. This was their lives, or at least Ian’s life and now Mickey’s by proxy.

“Anyway,” Ian was saying, “the girl who I found off of Michigan Avenue, according to Svetlana, is Felicia Ramirez.”

Mickey went still. “Ramirez,” he repeated after Ian. The shape of the name in his mouth was familiar. “Felicia Ramirez.” And then he knew why. “She’s from the neighborhood.”

Ian raised his eyebrows. “Really? Did you know her?”

Mickey was a little stunned by the coincidence. “Yeah, I knew her. Or well, my brother Iggy knew her. They dated for a while. Shit, she used to deal weed for her brothers. She had like four or five brothers who all grew weed in the basement, and she was the connect who sold at school. Didn’t you know her? If you bought weed in the neighborhood, you probably bought from Felicia or her brothers.”

Ian shook his head. “I never bought weed.” At Mickey’s incredulous laugh, Ian shrugged. “I’m serious, our neighbor Kev Ball grew for a while. And when we smoked after that, I never bought.”

Mickey felt a flare of jealousy, so sharp and sudden he almost rolled his eyes as he tamped it down. “We?”

“Me and Lip.” Ian gave him a weird look, and Mickey looked down at the eggs and bacon he was frying. Of course it was Lip. Ian had other relationships in his life that weren’t about sex. Mickey felt guilty for forgetting that.

Ian was still talking, mostly to himself. “Lip usually bought for us, I never…” Ian trailed off, lost in thought. He flipped open his phone and started dialing as Mickey looked on, somewhat impatient at the lack of explanation.

He also felt his mind start to buzz, the more he thought about the chance that the second dead girl Ian had found was Felicia. It didn’t take much to remember Felicia’s face, her thick dark hair, her deadpan expression. Girl was tough, he’d never forget that. She’d always reminded Mickey a lot of Mandy. And now she was dead. The thought made Mickey feel cold.

He looked at Ian again, and saw that he was waiting with the phone pressed to his face, staring at nothing, presumably as the other end rang. When the other person picked up, he rushed to speak. “Lip? Does the name Felicia Ramirez mean anything to you?” Ian waited, then waved a hand to catch Mickey’s eye and held up a thumb. “That’s what Mickey said. He recognized the name too.”

Mickey put some bacon in the pan and moved it around distractedly with a spatula, his main focus on Ian. Ian seemed eager, nearly bouncing with energy as he nodded into the phone.

“So what do you think? Should we go to Pilsen today, then the Ramirez’s tomorrow?” Ian frowned, going silent as he listened to his brother for a while.

After a while, Ian spoke, his voice skeptical. “Well, that could work, I guess. I have a friend I could ask to go with me instead. No, she’s cool. No, we should just get it done today. But are you sure that’s…no, I mean. It’s up to him. Okay. I’ll let you know.” He flipped his phone shut and sat back. “Huh.”

“What’s up, man?” Mickey called from the kitchen as he flipped an egg over.

“Um. So that was Lip.” Ian stood up and came to lean his elbows on the kitchen counter, his loose tank top dipping and exposing the sharp shape of his collarbone. Mickey swallowed and looked down, trying not to leer like a creep.

Instead he quirked an eyebrow as he buttered toast. “Urgent news bulletin: I know you were talking to Lip. You said his name.”

Ian ignored his sarcasm. “And he knows Felicia too. Or he knew of her, he said. He said you and him should go talk to the Ramirez’s.”

“What?” Mickey asked in surprise. He slid eggs and bacon on a plate and put the plate in front of Ian as Ian reached forward to snag a piece of toast. “What do you mean?”

“He said, since Felicia lived in the neighborhood, it might be better if I hung back, and instead him and you did a little shake down on your own. He said, and I’m quoting here, ‘if your guard dog wants to help, he can come make sure I don’t get my ass beat by the Ramirez brothers.’”

Mickey snorted. “Well, fuck him,” he said.

“I know,” Ian said. He shrugged. “What do you think?”

Mickey thought Lip probably just wanted to separate Mickey from the herd and kill him, and then blame it on the Ramirez brothers. Out loud, he said, “Lip might be right. I don’t think we’re doing you any favors if we let word get out you were the one poking around about a dead girl from the neighborhood.”

Ian nodded. “Well, me and Svetlana can go talk to Harriet Bell’s mother. Lip wanted to wait so he could go with, but I think it sounds stupid to waste time.”

Ian’s knees were bobbing anxiously under the counter. Mickey moved so his socked foot covered one of Ian’s twitching bare feet, unconsciously trying to soothe him as he thought over what Ian had said. Maybe it didn’t make sense to stretch things out. If they had the leads of the two girls now, might as well knock them out, instead of waiting for the killer to make his presence known again.

If they built up enough evidence, they could send it to the cops and hope the assholes could do something with everything essentially gift-wrapped for them. The thought surprised him, but what was more surprising was how neutral he felt about the idea.

Because that’s what they were heading toward, weren’t they? Looping in the cops. He and Ian hadn’t discussed it directly, and even two months ago the idea of turning to the police for help would have made Mickey throw his head back and laugh. But after calling on Tony for help the other night, and the way Ian kept bringing Detective Johnson’s business card out of his wallet when he thought no one was watching, spinning it in his hands as he studied it, Mickey figured it was a logical next step. It was either that or ask Ronnie to get one of his contacts to take the asshole out, once they figured out who it might be. There were less loose ends that way, but then, there was also the risk that they could get it wrong.

And then Ian would probably carry that around on his shoulders too, along with the deaths of the girls, forever blaming himself.

“Take Colin with to Pilsen,” Mickey said after a pause, his mind made up. “I don’t want you and Svetlana showing up there alone.” He still didn’t trust the fucking Russian lunatic in general, but in an Ian-specific sense he could grudgingly admit that she’d probably protect him with her life. Bitch was hardcore.

“It’ll be the middle of the fucking day, with one drunk old lady,” Ian protested. “Lip said she sounded plastered on the phone. I think we can handle it.”

Mickey set his own plate of food down on the counter with a little extra force. “Fuck, man. I know this sucks for you and I don’t want to keep you like a fucking bird in a gilded cage or some shit, but would you please, for the love of god, just humor me on this?”

He saw Ian open his mouth to protest, could practically recite his I-can-take-care-of-myself argument from memory at this point, but to Mickey’s surprise, Ian closed his mouth almost immediately. He exhaled, then flopped his hand on the counter, palm-up, eyes on Mickey.

A little suspicious of the sudden acquiescence, Mickey placed his hand cautiously in Ian’s. He raised his eyebrows, waiting.

“Gilded cage? You’re pretty poetic this morning,” Ian said with a smirk, laughing as Mickey swore and tried to take his hand back. Ian just squeezed his palm, holding his hand hostage. “I get it, buddy. I do. Better safe than sorry, right?”

“Such a dick,” Mickey said under his breath, but he let Ian squeeze his hand one more time before Ian released him and began scarfing down his breakfast with gusto.

Mickey watched Ian eat for a while, his own appetite a little diminished. He couldn’t get Felicia Ramirez out of his mind, and it only took ten or fifteen minutes to figure out why he was so uneasy. The fact that it took any time at all made him feel like an idiot, once it was clear to him.

For his part, Ian seemed cautiously optimistic. “Well, at least we know where to find her family. That’s good, I guess,” Ian said, his tone hopeful.

Mickey just looked at him. “Good? Are you serious?”

“What?” Ian asked, confused.

“Man,” Mickey said slowly, “she’s from the neighborhood. She lived right on the block.” He tried to remember, picturing houses in his mind. “Fuck, I think she lived like five minutes from your old place.”

“So?”

“She’s from the neighborhood,” Mickey repeated, trying to get Ian to understand. “She’s connected to you. You wanted evidence that this isn’t all just a coincidence, there it is.”

“Oh.” Ian sat back from his now-empty plate, his face falling.

Seeing Ian droop made Mickey hedge slightly. “We can’t know for sure. I’m just saying—”

But Ian shook his head. “No, you’re right. I mean, what are the fucking odds, right?” He smiled bleakly, folding his hands on the table. “I stumble upon some dead girl right in the Loop and she’s from our old neighborhood? She was probably hooking too. It’s all pretty fucking obvious. At least with Harriet Bell, it was just some dumb ROTC coincidence that didn’t really mean anything. But why would I be finding their hands and feet too, if I wasn't the link?”

Mickey didn’t really know what to say to that, so he kept silent, his foot still resting lightly on Ian’s beneath the counter.

“Sometimes it’s easy to forget, you know. Because it’s all so fucked up,” Ian said. “I think my mind just wants to keep believing it’s all a coincidence, that we’re looking into stuff that has nothing to do with me. That’s pretty stupid, though.”

Mickey felt his eyebrows draw together. “It’s not stupid.” Ian wouldn’t look at him, and it made Mickey feel a little panicked. “Hey. It’s not stupid.”

Ian crossed his arms across his chest and didn’t answer, scowling down at the counter, but then he reached up hurriedly and scrubbed a rough hand at his eyes.

And that was it. Mickey was up and making his way hurriedly around the counter until he could wrap a hand around the back of Ian’s neck. He tried to urge Ian to look at him, but Ian glanced away. His eyes looked red.

Not giving himself enough time to question it, Mickey hoisted himself up and into Ian’s lap with a grunt. Ian made a surprised sound (probably more of a pained sound because Mickey was relatively sure he’d almost nailed Ian in the nuts on his ascent) but Mickey twisted around until his legs draped over one side and he could wrap himself around Ian’s upper body like a limpet, even as Ian stiffened.

“I’m fine,, Mick,” Ian said, his arms hanging at his sides as Mickey pulled him closer. “I’m not a child.”

It made Mickey think of his uncle, of Ronnie’s slightly exasperated face. He is a kid. It made Mickey wrap a hand in Ian’s hair, his fingers tangling in the soft red strands.

“Shut up and let me hold you, you stubborn idiot,” Mickey muttered.

Ian seemed to wilt at that, bringing his arms around Mickey so he could cross his hands at Mickey’s back, burying his face in Mickey’s neck. The moment was almost painful in its intensity. Mickey could feel his heart pounding fast, and the way Ian was trembling, just slightly, beneath him. It felt like if he loosened his grip even the slightest, Ian would fly apart. Mickey was struck by the keen, terrifying responsibility of keeping Ian together.

Mickey lost track of how long they sat that way, tangled together on the kitchen stool.

After a while, Ian began to shift uncomfortably. “You’re pretty heavy, Mick,” he said, his voice a little muffled from where his face was still pressed into the nape of Mickey’s neck. “I think I’m okay. You can stop cradling me now.”

The moment began to lose some of its intensity, and Mickey felt himself smirk, a little relieved at the levity. “Brave little soldier,” he said into Ian’s shoulder.

Ian laughed hoarsely, shoving at Mickey’s chest, but Mickey held on. “Don’t fight it,” Mickey said, trying not to laugh now too. “Let these strong arms hold you.”

“Oh my god, get off,” Ian shouted, struggling in earnest now.

“I acknowledge your pain.”

Ian threw his head back, almost cackling. “Such an asshole.”

Mickey wrapped his arms firmly around Ian’s head, clasping his face to his bosom. “Too precious for this world!”

Ian snorted and gave a jerk, and they both fell sideways off the stool, clattering in a heap to the ground.

“Ow, fuck,” Mickey bit out, trying to shove Ian’s elbow from where it was poking Mickey stomach, even though Ian was still convulsing from giggles. “I’m heavy? Jesus, I think you broke my spleen.” But he was laughing now too, breathless with it.

“I bet you don’t even know what a spleen is.”

“What is, a blood filter found in most vertebrates,” Mickey said smugly, smacking Ian in the belly. He could almost feel Ian rolling his eyes. “Suck it, bitch.”

“Your own fucking fault, you nerd,” Ian said, but he rolled away so he was sprawled on the floor, his arms thrown to his side carelessly. One hand rested lightly against Mickey’s hip, the contact point making Mickey feel warm.

It took them a while to settle so neither was gasping from laughter anymore.

“You’re not stupid,” Mickey said again, when they were quiet. He turned so he was curled on his side on the cold kitchen floor, facing Ian.

Ian didn’t respond, but he didn’t look quite so hopeless anymore, which Mickey took as a win. After a beat, Ian bent his elbow so he could curl a hand around Mickey’s, still staring at the ceiling flat on his back, as Mickey watched him quietly from his side.

 

****

 

Later that afternoon, as Ian sat with Svetlana on the L, he could feel her watching him. She clearly had something she wanted to say, but Ian was avoiding it. It wasn’t like she was being entirely forthcoming on her end, either.

When he’d called her after he and Mickey had hauled themselves up from the kitchen floor, she had agreed to come with to Pilsen almost immediately.

“We will find out everything there is to know about first girl,” she said, her voice grimly determined, hanging up before Ian had a chance to answer. It made his chest go warm at her vehemence, even if he felt wholly unprepared for the entire endeavor.

Mickey had to make some calls to make sure Colin was free, who agreed to meet them in Pilsen, and after promising Mickey three separate times that he would call as soon as they finished up with Mrs. Bell, Ian left the apartment to meet Svetlana.

When Ian had approached her at the bottom of the stairs to the L platform, he decided to get the goddamn feet out of the way first.

He watched how Svetlana’s nostrils flared as she processed his hurried, whispered account of finding the black plastic garbage bag in the room.

“You should not have ever returned to motel, Ian,” she said through her teeth. Her fists were clenched at her side, but Ian got the feeling she wasn’t mad at him. Which was comforting, because Svetlana looked infuriated.

She breathed out loudly, clearly trying to calm herself. “You are okay?” she asked, her jaw slightly less clenched.

Ian shrugged in a way he hoped said, not really, but if I talk anymore about how not-okay I am, I might lose my grip on reality.

So he switched topics, hoping to distract her into answering, but she was impressively evasive about how in the hell she’d managed to get the second girl’s name. He had a feeling it went beyond just asking around the other working girls she knew. It made Ian nervous that she’d probably done something stupid to help him, but she just shrugged it off.

“Everyone has needs, even pigs,” she said vaguely, although she smiled smugly at Ian’s confusion.

“What the hell does that mean, Lana?” he demanded.

She arched an eyebrow at him. “You would not survive one day in Russia,” she pronounced dismissively.

“What the hell does that mean?” Ian said, even more exasperated. “Why are you always so fucking cryptic?”

“It means you are too soft for what needs to be done,” she said, not unkindly.

“I’m not soft, I just think it’s fucked up if you’re taking stupid risks and then keeping it a secret from me,” Ian shot back.

Svetlana looked amused. “Do you hear the words you are saying?” As they went through the turnstile, she was shaking her head. “Besides, do not talk to me about secrets.” She gave him a significant look as they waited for the train, but Ian was irritated and mostly ignored her as they waited for the L to come to a screaming stop on the tracks in front of them so they could board.

Now, Ian had managed to ignore her stare for three stops total, but it was like being speared by a laser. Finally, he sighed heavily.

“Yes, Svetlana?” he asked flatly.

She didn’t waste time with niceties. “You are not working.”

Ian blinked. “Like, right now?” He looked around them at the mostly-empty L car. “Neither are you.”

Svetlana reached out casually and smacked him over the head, hard.

Ian yelped, rubbing the back of his head and twisting away to avoid another hit. “What the hell, Lana?”

Svetlana was shaking her head, her eyes narrowed. “You can lie to boyfriend, or idiot brother—”

“Mickey’s not my, I mean—”

“—but do not lie to me or I crush orange head with hammer until dead.”

Ian sat back, a little shocked. Svetlana crossed her arms as she watched him.

“Things are a little complicated right now,” Ian offered finally. He twisted his hands in his lap, focusing on the way his fingers flexed together rather than meeting Svetlana’s gaze. “I just feel like I’m flying apart, a little.”

Ian glanced out the window, enjoying how the train cruised jerkily past apartment buildings so you could just study the shapes of the furniture and carpets within each unit before trundling further past.

“I’m a little afraid to leave the apartment.” He frowned, the admission making him feel even weaker. “Mickey’s apartment, I mean. It’s not mine. Fuck, I have zero dollars, I can’t even pretend like I’m not just squatting.” He shook his head forcefully. “That’s what’s happening. I’m squatting, he’s letting me squat and feeding me and he’s not even making me fuck him in return. He’s just. He’s too good for me.”

Svetlana reached forward and smacked him on the back of the head again. Ian yelped again. Fuck, Svetlana struck like a snake, she was almost preternaturally fast.

“Would you stop hitting me, please?” Ian asked crankily.

“Would you stop being stupid fucking idiot for two seconds?”

“Maybe,” Ian muttered, still rubbing the back of his head. He had to admit, it was a relief talking to Svetlana about this, easier than trying to explain to Mickey or Lip, or anyone who had never worked this life. Still, it was difficult to put his feelings into words. “It’s just, I feel so…old, sometimes. I can’t tell if I’ve always felt like this, or if it’s just everything that’s happened in the last month. Sometimes I worry that I’ll always feel, just, used up.” He stared at the silver bracelet on Svetlana’s wrist as he spoke. “Do you ever feel like that?”

“Do I get tired?” She snorted. “Yes. I take nap, and am fine.” Ian smiled crookedly and shoved her with his shoulder. Svetlana smirked, but sobered as she considered her words. “Sometimes I feel worse, though. This life, it does not have to be everything you are. But it can change you. Maybe not all the way, but in pieces. It can make you do things.” She glanced off, and Ian wondered if she was thinking about Mickey, about what she’d done to him, about what his father had made her do. “It can make you hard.”

Ian chewed his lip, and he felt his eyes grow embarrassingly damp. Jesus, he was a watering pot these days. “I don’t know if I want it to make me hard, Lana.”

Svetlana reached over and knocked aside the nest Ian was making with his hands, wrapping her hand firmly around one of his palms. “That is okay.”

Ian glanced at her, startled. He had always assumed, perhaps unfairly, that Svetlana would want him to work as long as she did. For the last year and a half, it had been Svetlana and Ian against the world, like their own weird little family when his own had fallen apart. He was worried that if he quit, Svetlana would think he was leaving her behind.

“It’s not like I’ve decided to stop hook—” he paused, spying the middle-aged lady sitting placidly two rows ahead of them, “working, or anything. I’m taking a breather.” Seeing Svetlana’s frown, he tried to elaborate. “Some time to think. A break.”

Her face cleared, and she rolled her eyes, but Ian knew the irritated gesture usually indicated exasperated fondness on Svetlana’s harsh-featured face. “Anything you want to do,” she said, edging a little closer so their hips were pressed together, “to take care of you, is okay to do.”

He fidgeted a little anyway. “It just makes me feel like a chump, you know?” He sighed. “I start hanging out with some guy and suddenly I don’t want to bang anybody else? How lame is that.” It was only a fraction of what he was feeling, his emotions so tangled they felt like a knot in his chest, but that was the easiest one to verbalize.

“No job is forever, Ian,” Svetlana said prosaically. “Nothing is permanent. You did not go to school for this, you are not paying back, the money, the money the government gives—”

“Loans,” Ian supplied.

Svetlana nodded. “You do not owe your life to anyone. If you want to change, the only thing that stops you is own stupid carrot head. America is land of choices, no?”

“Maybe I choose to keep working, then,” Ian couldn’t help saying stubbornly.

Svetlana raised her eyebrow. “Then work. Work, don’t work, join circus, marry boyfriend and rub dicks together. It does not matter to me.” She leaned closer so her forehead nearly rested against his own. “Just do not whine.”

“I’m not whining,” Ian said, but it sounded like a whine even to him. He was silent for a while. “Thank you, by the way. For going with me today. For helping me look into the girls.” Svetlana waved her free hand dismissively, but Ian wasn’t done. “Thank you for being there, since way back when.”

They both shifted uncomfortably, going silent, this level of sentimentality more or less an anomaly in their otherwise straight-headed friendship.

Svetlana broke first. “You are important to me.” She swallowed, rubbing her nose with her free hand, the motion self-conscious. “You are important to many people. It is your responsibility to take care of yourself for us.” She looked at him more directly. “To take care of yourself for you, too.”

Ian glanced away, emotion rising in his throat. They sat quietly for the rest of the ride, hands clasped together, until they reached their stop, separating only as they walked down the stairs to street level.

Ian had only been to Pilsen one time before when he was nine or ten. Monica had been home and whisked him and Lip off on an impromptu field trip for tacos at some tiny restaurant she swore was the best in the city. At the time he had felt nervous and a little scared, swept up in the breathless energy of one of Monica’s highs as she dragged them through the rough neighborhood. He’d been unaccountably relived when Fiona had caught up with them, yelling at Monica and dragging Lip and Ian by the hands back onto the train, fuming the whole trip back to Canaryville.

Now, the neighborhood seemed brighter than he remembered, slightly more gentrified. They had to walk several blocks before things began to look more rundown and familiar. Ian could appreciate that it was kind of weird that he felt more at ease in the dark, decrepit corners of a place, like he could slide into the shadows and avoid undue notice.

To be fair, Svetlana also seemed to relax as they left the sleek hipster diners and independent coffee shops at their backs and moved deeper into the more worn-out residential part of the neighborhood. So at least he wasn’t completely alone in his neurosis.

As they walked, something struck Ian, and he stumbled a little. “Wait. ‘Even pigs have needs?’” He pulled at Svetlana’s elbow. “Jesus christ, Lana, did you fuck a cop to get that second name?”

She pulled away from his grasp, shrugging. “Do not worry pretty head,” she said, rubbing her hand roughly over said head even as Ian tried to twist away.

Ian could see her lips pressing together stubbornly, so he decided to leave it for now. “Goddamnit, Lana,” he said instead, shaking his head at her superior smirk. They were talking about this, he decided. Later.

“Yo, Gallagher!” The call made Ian jerk his head up, and he saw Colin leaning against the Oldsmobile at the end of the block.

Ian smiled, waving back, but Svetlana went stiff at his side.

“Who is man?” Svetlana whispered sharply out of the corner of her mouth.

“That’s Mickey’s brother,” Ian explained. “Mickey was nervous about us coming out here alone while him and Lip went to talk to Felicia’s family.”

“We can take care of selves,” Svetlana insisted.

Ian sighed. “That’s what I said. But I also think that just because we can, doesn’t mean we have to do this alone.” He heard the echo of Mickey in his own words and rubbed the back of his neck self-consciously, even though Svetlana was still focused on staring suspiciously at Colin as they got closer.

“I do not trust men,” she said testily.

“You trust me, and I’m a man, Lana,” Ian said, rolling his eyes. She rolled hers back sarcastically.

“You are boy,” she said. They reached Colin, and Svetlana crossed her arms, throwing her head back defiantly. “Hello.”

Colin’s eyebrows went up high. He swallowed. “Well. Hello there.”

“Hey, Colin,” Ian said. Colin didn’t really spare him a glance, too busy staring at Lana, wide-eyed. Ian shook his head, even as he kind of understood. Svetlana was a little breathtaking when you first met her. “Thanks for meeting us out. Sorry to keep bothering you.”

“It’s no big deal,” Colin said distractedly.

It seemed like they were in danger of standing on the sidewalk all day, Colin staring at Svetlana and Svetlana glaring haughtily back, so Ian sighed and grabbed them both by the elbows. “Let’s get this over with,” he said.

Looking at the address on the scrap of paper in his hand, he brought them to a stop outside of an unremarkable-looking brownstone.

“Lip said we’re just trying to confirm if Harriet Bell is actually the first girl,” Ian prepped Colin and Svetlana. “We’re not here to interrogate her mom, we’re just trying to find out more details. Maybe see if she might be connected to me, if we're lucky.” He swallowed at the implication.

Colin and Svetlana waited for more instructions, but Ian had nothing.

“That is all?” Svetlana demanded.

“Our cover is school newspaper. Lip said the lady sounded pretty eager to talk about her daughter, even if the story is weak,” Ian offered.

Svetlana still didn’t looked satisfied, but Colin shrugged. “Looks like we’re winging it,” he said, and went up the steps to the house, knocking firmly on the door as Ian and Svetlana came to stand beside him.

There was some stumbling inside the house. Whoever was behind the door was fumbling with the lock to the door. Ian spared Svetlana a glance, feeling tense. He suddenly wished Mickey was there with them.

The door behind the screen swung open to reveal a tiny blonde woman in pajama pants and an oversized sweatshirt with a smiling cat on the front. She smelled distinctly of booze.

She smiled widely at the sight of them like she had been waiting her whole life for them to knock on her door.

“Mrs. Harris?” Ian asked hesitantly, remembering at the last minute that Bell was just an alias for Harriet, no matter how comfortable he had gotten calling the girl it in his head. “We called the other day about coming to talk with you? We’re from the high school.”

The woman smiled broadly. “Yes! I remember. Come in, please come in,” she said enthusiastically, pulling the screen door wide open and stepping aside to welcome them in.

With only a short hesitation, Ian stepped inside. “Thanks, Mrs. Harris,” he said as all three of them made their way into the dark, slightly dusty interior of the brownstone.

The woman shook her head. “Harris is my ex-husband’s name. Call me by my maiden name, Bell.” She snickered. “Or you can just call me Julia.” She waggled her eyebrows at Ian, the motion so exaggerated and good-natured he couldn’t help but smile back. The woman was kind of a ham.

“We’re sorry to bother you.” He had a notebook and pen in his back pocket, but that was about it for props. He looked at Colin and Svetlana, who looked similarly out of place.

“Thank you for inviting us to your home,” Svetlana said stiffly, but politely. She seemed uncomfortable, but Ian figured that was working in their favor, because Svetlana looked younger when she was unsure of herself. She could just pass for a hard-faced hood girl still in high school at this rate.

Julia smiled at her. “No problem at all, please, come in. I love talking about Hattie. She hates how I brag, but what mother can resist?” She waved them toward the couch, but tilted her head when she caught sight of Colin.

Colin looked nearly thirty, and in his dirty sweatshirt and baggy jeans, like an obvious thug. He smiled at Julia anyway.

“He’s our faculty adviser for the paper,” Ian improvised. He knew it was a weak fucking story, and he had a feeling it never would’ve flown with a less-susceptible prey. But if there was one thing Ian could do, besides fuck for money and lie to himself, it was identify an alcoholic. And Harriet Bell’s mother was sloshed.

Julia stumbled as she ushered them to the couch and sat in the loveseat herself. She was surprisingly lucid, even though her eyes were foggy and occasionally blinked out of rhythm with one another. She reminded Ian slightly of Frank, but she also seemed more friendly and almost desperate for company.

She nodded at Ian expectantly. “Is this about Hattie’s ROTC work? She wants to be an officer.”

Ian jolted at that, the words like an echo from another life. Trying to focus, he decided to step back into the skin of his older self.

“I was in ROTC too,” he said, nodding. “I’m trying to go to West Point. Me and Hattie used to talk about it all the time.”

“Have you talked to her recently?” Julia asked, leaning forward. “She said she’d call, but that was a few months ago.”

“I haven’t talked to her since January,” Ian said. The lie felt disgusting in his mouth. It also felt unconvincing and sloppy. He had no idea what Harriet Bell had been up to in January, and maybe it was an oversight just to pick a date out of the air.

“Oh,” Julia said, deflating slightly even as she accepted Ian’s lie easily.

He started to think Lip was right to keep him out of the trip to visit the Ramirez’s, where Felicia’s brothers were probably a lot more hard-headed and difficult to fool than the drunk, broken-hearted older woman in front of them.

“At least you three aren’t the cops,” Julia said, perking up slightly. “Couldn’t get the smell of bacon out of my sofa for weeks.”

“The police were here?” Ian asked casually.

Julia waved a hand vaguely in front of her face. “For the longest time, they never came here.” She leaned back limply against the couch. “I called for months, trying to get them to look for Hattie, but they only came by once to ask a few questions like they want to help find my girl, but those clowns couldn’t get out of here fast enough. Then they show up last week trying to tell me my girl’s gone?” She laughed, like the very idea was absurd. “More like they just don’t want to keep looking for her.”

Ian sat back, trying to process what this meant. Was Harriet Bell no longer a Jane Doe? Had the police been able to officially identify her? “Did you have to go into the station with them?” he asked lightly.

Julia gave him an indulgent look. “To listen to more of their lies? When Hattie came to visit last year, she told me how the police are always giving her trouble. You can’t believe anything they say.”

“It is truth,” Svetlana muttered darkly beside Ian. He nodded internally. If Harriet Bell hooked too, that was probably something she knew as well as Ian or Svetlana did.

“When did she leave home?” Ian asked carefully, but Julia seemed happy to chatter.

“Well, she said she was staying at a friend’s house. Her father had moved back in, and they.” She paused, swallowing. “It was never good for Hattie when he was around. So she stayed away for a few weeks, but then she lost her phone, so I couldn’t call her. She’s usually good about getting in touch, but she must be busy now.”

Julia twisted her hands in her lap, the skin around her eyes going tight. Ian thought maybe he should ask some questions about ROTC, keep up their ruse, but Julia seemed distracted. Besides, Ian didn’t know what to say. Shit, he was bad at this.

“You didn’t go to identify the body with the police?” Colin asked gently. Ian started a little. He almost forgot Colin was there, but he was watching Julia carefully, leaning forward to speak with her directly.

Julia snorted. “Why would I do that? Go look at some stranger’s body and rubberneck on somebody else’s pain?” She shook her head sharply. “My Hattie is alive. She’s fine. She’ll come home when she’s ready.”

Ian didn’t know what to say to that. He looked at Svetlana, who was frowning. It felt so wrong to be here, in Harriet Bell’s living room, watching her mother resolutely refuse to believe that anything had happened to her daughter. Who was Ian to press, to force her to believe what she didn’t want to be true?

“I’m sure she’ll be back soon,” Colin agreed quietly. Ian looked at him in shock and Colin shrugged one shoulder, the movement too tiny for Julia to see. She wasn’t really watching them anyway as she stared at the coffee rings on the short side table in front of the couch.

Svetlana was less subtle. She kicked Colin hard in the shin, making him jerk. Colin didn’t spare her a glance, instead reaching forward to touch the wood of the table to get Julia’s attention.

“I’m sorry for your troubles,” he said.

Maybe it was wrong to help her delude herself, but Ian was secretly glad Colin had said it. But then, he wasn’t surprised. Colin was a lot like Mickey. He would never hurt someone weaker than himself, not if he could help it.

Also, maybe Colin was sly like a fox, because Julia seemed to relax even more, her speech going soft and loose, tripping over topics as she rambled.

“We should have never moved out here,” Julia said decisively, swaying gently even as she sat on the couch, like she was aboard a boat. “Hattie’s dad wanted us out of the South Side, but I never wanted to go.” She snorted again, the sound already becoming a familiar expression of hers. “Then the asshole up and leaves us anyway for some cocktail slut.” Then Julia frowned. “I shouldn’t say that. My husband chose to leave. The girl didn’t hold a gun to his head.”

Ian glanced at Svetlana and saw her eyebrows had gone up. He was confident she also felt a little taken aback by Julia’s words. In their line of work, husbands and wives were rarely so forgiving.

But then something Julia said bounced in his head.

“You’re from the South Side?”

“Born and raised,” Julia said with a smile. “Over near Wallace Street.”

“Holy shit,” Ian said hoarsely and sat back. That was the street he had lived on with Fiona. He and Harriet Bell had probably been neighbors for a while when they were little.

Julie leaned forward, concerned. “Are you okay, sweetheart?”

Ian swallowed, trying to respond, but his head was spinning. The room felt like it was shrinking around him. For a brief panicky moment, he thought he might pass out. It was Svetlana who saved him, as usual.

“Did you forget assignment for class again?” she prompted. “Paper that is due. About history.” She gestured ambiguously with her hand, and Ian leapt for the vague out.

“I think I forgot my history paper assignment, yes,” Ian parroted mechanically. He stood up. His legs felt like jelly.

“Well, as advisor for the paper, I think you should go get that done,” Colin said woodenly, standing up as well. Ian would've rolled his eyes if he wasn't so shaken. Thank god Julia was drunk.

“We’ll have to interview you another time for the paper,” Ian said. His voice sounded a thousand miles away.

She followed them as they all hurried to the door, Svetlana watching Ian worriedly as he felt his face going pale. It was all too much, to think that if what him and Lip and Mickey all suspected was correct, then all Harriet Bell had done wrong was have the bad luck to be loosely connected to Ian. That was all it took to seal her fate. Ian felt like he was gasping for air.

Julia touched his elbow before Ian staggered outside, making him pause. “If you hear from Hattie,” she said, swallowing thickly, “please tell her to call me.”

Ian opened his mouth to respond, but he couldn’t say anything. Svetlana swooped in, taking Julia’s hand, the gesture surprising Ian even in his surprised state. Svetlana was usually much colder with strangers. “We will,” she promised. “Thank you for your time.”

Julia smiled again, the expression almost stoic in its stubbornness. “You kids are welcome back any time. I love talking about Hattie.”

The three of them walked to the street, the screen door clanging shut and then the main door closing much softer behind them.

On the sidewalk, Ian put his hands on his knees, trying to get himself together. Svetlana placed a light hand on his back.

“Just breathe,” she said softly.

After a while, Ian straightened. He felt worn out, like a sponge squeezed over a bucket, but at least he didn’t feel like fainting like an idiot anymore.

Colin was watching Ian, his eyebrows raised high. He looked troubled. “I’ll give you guys a ride home,” he offered.

“Of course you are,” Svetlana snapped, jerking her chin at Ian. “Look at him. He cannot take train back.”

Colin held up his hands in submission, but Svetlana swept past him, keeping a firm grip on Ian’s shoulders. She guided him into the car and sat in the front with Colin, beginning an immediate argument about radio stations as Colin meekly let her play DJ for the ride.

In the Oldsmobile, Ian slumped in the back and pulled out his cell phone. There were a few missed messages from Mickey asking how everything was going.

Ian considered texting, but he couldn’t figure out what to type, so he pressed the green CALL button, listening as the phone rang and rang. Ian still hadn’t bugged Mickey to set up his voicemail yet, which he knew was an oversight now as he waited morosely for Mickey to answer.

Ian knew Mickey and Lip were probably busy with the Ramirez's as they spoke, but he still kept the phone to his ear. Even with the sound of Svetlana yelling at Colin in the front seat filling the car, he felt tired and alone.

“Come on, Mickey,” he said under his breath. “Just pick up.”

 

****

 

No more than four miles away, Mickey was sitting in an expensive red truck that probably got three or four miles to the gallon, arms crossed as he tried simultaneously to not text Ian for the fourth time asking for an update (Ian was fine, he told himself, Ian was totally fine, Colin had already texted him earlier when he saw Ian and Svetlana in Pilsen, just because Ian himself didn’t text him didn’t mean he wasn’t fine), and to not strangle Ian’s smug asshole of a brother to death with his own stupid messenger bag.

Lip had offered to pick Mickey up and drive to Canaryville together, which was initially weird but made sense as soon as he rolled up in the big red truck that probably cost more than nearly every other car parked on the street in front of Mickey’s apartment building.

“Nice car,” Mickey said as he walked down the sidewalk, eyeing the bright red paint warily. “Talk about understated elegance.”

Lip rolled his eyes through the open window. “It’s my girlfriend’s dad’s truck, she’s letting me borrow it.”

“Must be a rich girlfriend,” Mickey guessed as he hopped up into the high truck with effort.

“Rich enough,” Lip said with a shrug.

Mickey felt his lip curl a little bit as he looked out the window, wishing he was anywhere but with Lip. He'd even rather be at the Laundromat being pestered by Mandy than in the car with Lip, who was clearly trying to send him some kind of you-hurt-my-brother-I-hurt-you message but was really only succeeding at coming off as his usual dickhead self.

Idly, Mickey wished Ronnie was there to put some fear into Lip. He almost smiled at the thought. He had called his uncle earlier to tell him about their plans to tag-team the families of the dead girls. He’d had to, if he wanted Colin free to go to Pilsen. His brother usually ran collections in the middle of the week, and he had had to call a couple guys to find someone who was free to cover his jobs.

Over the phone, he had been able to tell Ronnie was less than thrilled about the upset in schedules, but it was also the most Mickey had volunteered about Ian in days, at least since the Ian and Ronnie Clash of the Titan Egos, as Colin had started to refer to it.

So Ronnie had taken the information as the olive branch Mickey had hoped it would be, and told him as long as Mickey found someone to cover for Colin, his brother could go with Ian.

Which was another thing Mickey was dancing around. As far as Ronnie knew, Ian was going to Pilsen alone and Svetlana didn’t exist, because Mickey didn’t know how to explain her presence in Ian’s life to his uncle. Ronnie was already suspicious about how Ian found the first and second names, and Mickey could tell Ronnie knew Ian had help somewhere. But Mickey was also fairly confident that if Ronnie knew about Svetlana, who Svetlana was to Mickey, he would kill her.

That afternoon two years ago was something Mickey and Ronnie never talked about. Ronnie knew basic details about what had happened, and he knew Terry had called someone to fuck Mickey. But Mickey had never gone into more illustrative detail, because the one time he tried, Ronnie had punched a wall and walked out, leaving the apartment without his phone for the rest of the day.

Mickey knew, the way he knew things about his family that no one ever spoke, that if Ronnie had his way, Terry would’ve been flat on his back, dead, the second Mickey had first arrived beaten and bloody on Ronnie’s doorstep. But Ronnie was Terry’s older brother. He’d been his protector since they were kids in Ukraine, and then when they moved to the U.S. and could barely speak broken English to the bullies that beat the shit out of them at Chavez Elementary School. He’d gone to jail for Terry more than once.

Ronnie couldn’t kill Terry, and Mickey knew that it in turn killed Ronnie, knowing he was powerless to do more than move Mickey out of the old house, and bring Colin and now Mandy into his sphere of protection.

So Mickey didn’t doubt for a second that if the opportunity arose, Ronnie would strike like lightning to enact the type of Old World justice he preferred to deal with what had happened to Mickey.

It made Mickey feel uncomfortably like he was protecting Svetlana. He pivoted in his head and made himself decide he was protecting Ian instead, because Ian would be sad if his best friend was revenge-killed by an ex-Ukrainian mafia don, and Mickey didn’t like when Ian was sad. He almost believed himself when he thought the words.

Lost in his own thoughts, Mickey barely noticed Lip watching him out of the corner of his eye as he eased them further west toward the old neighborhood.

“Funny how as soon as my brother meets you, he starts dealing with even more fucked up shit than he was before,” Lip said, his voice mild, his eyes hard.

It took Mickey a second to marshal a retort, distracted as he was. “You could say that,” he said after a beat, flatly. “Almost as funny as you living like some bourgie asshole in a fancy dorm while your little brother was fucking around to make ends meet.”

“There’s no such thing as a fancy dorm room,” Lip said irritably.

Mickey snorted. “Yeah, that’s the key point you should be focusing on here.”

They fell silent again, both scowling nearly identically.

“I would never hurt your brother,” Mickey said after a while, because as much as he wanted to be chilly and aloof, he didn’t want Ian’s fucking brother thinking he’d hurt Ian.

“Pinkie promise?” Lip asked, rolling his eyes.

“I’m serious,” Mickey said, frustrated. “I’m, I’m really. I’m into him.” It was a pretty weak pronouncement, even Mickey could admit that, but fuck, it wasn’t like he had any experience to guide him here, and he felt his face flush with anger when Lip laughed derisively.

“Oh, you’re into him, never mind then,” Lip said, making a face. “Well, as long as you’re casually into my little brother, then I guess I don’t need to worry.”

Mickey smacked the dashboard so hard his hand ached immediately. “God, are you always such a prick?”

“Yes!” Lip exploded. “Yes I am! I’m a prick if I need to be when it comes to taking care of my family, and Ian’s really all that I have left of that family. I’d give my life for the goddamn risk-taking idiot, and I’m certainly willing to hurt your feelings a little bit if it means making sure he’s protected.”

Lip went still, a blush rushing up his neck like he was humiliated at letting so much slip. Mickey got the feeling Lip was used to being in control at all times.

Mickey forced himself to take a breath. Lip was an asshole, wild horses couldn’t disavow him of that opinion at this point, but Lip was also just as alone as Ian was that first morning Mickey had run into him nearly two months ago. It was easy to forget, seeing Lip driving his rich-ass car that his rich-ass girlfriend had loaned to him. But it was true.

Mickey didn’t know what the deal with Fiona was, or why she had slid off the face of the globe when shit had gotten tough, especially now that Ian needed her so much, even if he didn’t admit it. Lip probably needed her too. Frankly, it made Mickey a little nervous to even speculate where she was, the way things were going now.

But he did know that having Ronnie to boss him around, as overbearing as his uncle could be, was like being able to jump off a cliff and know you had bungee cords tied around your ankles. It had been two years, and Mickey was starting to take it for granted, but maybe he shouldn’t. Him and Colin, and Mandy now too, they had Ronnie. If they still lived with their dad, they’d still be living like feral children, turning on each other to survive.

He didn’t know how to say that to Lip, though. So he sighed, long and loud.

“Let’s just focus on not getting our asses chased down dead by the Ramirez brothers, alright?” he said, letting brisk impatience creep into his voice. “You don’t look like you could outrun them.”

Lip seemed relieved for a split-second, before covering with a scowl. “I don’t need to be fast, I just need to be faster than you.”

Against his will, Mickey snorted at that, and then they were pulling up in front of the worn-down Ramirez house.

Mickey paused, thinking they’d coordinate some kind of plan, but Lip was kicking open the door to the truck and stalking up the overgrown sidewalk to the front door before Mickey could even undo his seatbelt.

“Fuck, where’s the goddamn fire,” he groused, jogging to join Lip on the stoop where he was already pounding on the door, Lip’s face resolute.

There were shouts and cranky voices from inside the house. It gave Mickey a weird sense of déjà vu.

The door swung open with a sudden screech, and one of the Ramirez brothers (Maybe Manuel? Mickey wasn’t sure. He’d made a few runs with them back in the day, but they’d all always looked enormous and identical to him.) was glaring down at Mickey and Lip.

“The fuck you want?” the Ramirez brother demanded. His voice was impossibly deep and slow, like it started at his toes and worked its way up lazily.

“We’re looking for Felicia,” Lip said carelessly.

Mickey could see it happen in his mind’s eye before the Ramirez brother even moved, but by the time it actually happened, it was too late to intervene and Lip was pressed against the door frame, a thick, strong hand squeezing his throat.

“You know where Felicia is?” the Ramirez brother demanded, crowding Lip until he towered over him.

“Why would he ask you where she was if he already knew where she was, dude? Come on, use your head,” Mickey said, struggling to pull the giant Ramirez off Lip, who was, on his end, struggling to breathe.

“Manny, what’s going—” Another equally deep voice cut off as a slightly shorter but stockier man came to the door. He seemed surprised to see Mickey. “Milkovich? The fuck you doing here?”

Mickey thought this brother’s name was Alex, but he was a little distracted trying to make sure Lip’s head didn’t pop off like a dandelion to confirm.

“Dude, we can catch up just as soon as you pull your brother off my friend here,” Mickey said, pulling ineffectually at Manny’s arm.

Frowning in confusion, Alex tapped his brother’s shoulder. “Hey man,” he said, not looking too bothered that his brother was more or less choking Lip to death. “What’s going on?”

“These assholes were asking about Felicia,” Manny said, still glaring at Lip, but Mickey thought he saw his wrist flex, going slightly slack. Lip gasped, and Mickey would be lying if he didn’t relish the sound just a tiny bit.

“Felicia?” Alex repeated. His eyes were wide, haunted. “You guys know about Felicia?”

“Just from high school, man. Can you ease up off Gallagher for a second?” Mickey asked Manny pointedly, and Manny finally sighed, letting Lip drop suddenly.

Lip grabbed Mickey’s shoulder, taking deep breaths as he steadied himself. Mickey just kept himself from rolling his eyes. This all could’ve gone smoother.

“Have you seen Felicia?” Alex was asking intently, ignoring Lip’s hacking coughs.

“Naw man, I haven’t,” Mickey admitted. It seemed to hit Alex like a blow, his expression drooping. It was like watching a candle melt in elapsed-time.

“Oh,” Alex said dumbly. Manny reached over to pat his brother roughly on the back.

“My brother was looking for her,” Mickey said, making it up as he went along. “He’s in the can but he’s trying to make bond before his hearing, and he said Felicia owed him some money.”

“That your brother Iggy you talking about?” Manny asked. He sounded suspicious. “Isn’t he the Milkovich fag your dad beat near to death?”

“Different brother,” Mickey said smoothly. That reassurance seemed to relax both brothers.

“Felicia ain’t been home in over a month,” Alex admitted. “Me and Manny and some of our cousins have been looking for her, but…” Alex shrugged. It was a hopeless gesture. “You sure you ain’t seen her?”

Mickey shook his head, feeling apologetic. Now that he was really looking at Manny and Alex, they looked haggard. In his mind’s eye, he saw the disembodied feet from the motel, the muted sound they made as they fell on the concrete after Tony dumped them out of the bag. If Svetlana was right, then those feet were Felicia’s. He wondered if she was still a Jane Doe. If she wasn’t, it seemed like no one had bothered to inform the Ramirez house.

“The cops been around looking for her?” he couldn’t help but ask.

He stepped away from Lip in a way he hoped indicated that he was in no way truly affiliated with that asshole. It seemed to help. Alex sighed, shaking his head, his shoulder relaxing slightly.

“Ma wanted to call the cops, but last time we saw Felicia she’d been saying how the fuckers have been hassling her for weeks,” Alex said.

“We wanted to try and find her first,” Manny said. He looked at Alex, then back at Mickey, his expression guarded. “She been having some trouble, you know?”

Mickey had a feeling he knew what kind of trouble that was, the kind of trouble Ian had found himself in a few years ago, and nodded back grimly. So at least they could confirm Felicia was missing. It wasn’t smoking gun evidence, but it did mean wherever Svetlana was getting her information wasn’t completely off base.

By this point, Lip had regained both his voice and his personality, which Mickey thought was a shame. Lip squared his shoulders and faced Alex and Manny. “Look man, can we take this tea party inside? We need to talk to you.”

Any softness in Alex’s face went immediately hard. He reached out and shoved Lip in the middle of his chest, the motion looking careless on Alex’s end but the force enough to send Lip careening off the porch, barely catching himself from falling flat on his ass.

Mickey tried not to smirk. He was really liking the Ramirez brothers lately.

“You with that asshole?” Alex asked, nodding at Lip’s crouched form.

Mickey shook his head emphatically. “Negative. That’s a hard no,” he said. “I’m doing a favor for his brother though, and he’s helping me track down people for Iggy.”

“Yo man, we can’t let y’all in the house right now. Ma’s been…it’s been rough,” Manny said, his deep voice solemn.

Mickey believed him. Standing in the doorway, the whole house seemed to be bleeding sadness.

“Just, could you do me a solid, man?” Alex cut in. “If you see our sister, could you…let us know. Please.”

It was the most serious conversation he had ever had with a Ramirez brother, and Mickey couldn’t help but nod back just as seriously, his mind seeing Mandy and imagining his and Colin’s panic if she disappeared without a trace. She was a pain in the ass, sure, but the very idea of her getting hurt made his stomach hurt.

Alex shot Lip a glare as he turned around. “Get that mess the fuck off our property and back in his fancy-ass car, Milkovich, or I swear to god,” Alex said. Him and Manny lumbered back inside, the door slamming behind them.

Mickey tugged at his hair thoughtfully as he turned to head back to the truck, Lip limping slightly as he followed.

“Nice job back there, real smooth,” Mickey said to him.

Lip was rubbing his neck as he unlocked the truck. “You never heard of good-cop, bad-cop?”

“Sure, that looked like a really deliberate, well-thought-out plan, bravo, asshole,” Mickey said sourly as he threw himself back in the truck.

“Yeah, well, can’t argue with results,” Lip said, smiling. “Looks like Dead Girl Number Two might indeed be Felicia.”

Mickey gave him a sharp look. “Don’t talk about her like that, man. That’s their fucking sister,” he said, gesturing back at the Ramirez house with his head. He knew he sounded soft, but he thought of Ian, and knew he would probably say the same, and he couldn’t regret the words.

Lip had the decency to look ashamed. “Sorry, man. Just got caught up. I mean, this is good news, in a way. We have a lead.”

Mickey shook his head, not getting it, as Lip turned on the truck and pulled away from the curb. “What lead? Other than the fact that apparently a bunch of untrained idiots like us are slightly more capable of chasing down criminal evidence than the whole of the Chicago PD?”

“Well, that too,” Lip acknowledged. “But Felicia was getting hassled by the cops.” He said it with a flourish, like this was their Big Break.

“She was probably hooking,” Mickey said absently, thinking of Ian’s certainty that the first girl, Harriet Bell, had been a working girl. It stood to reason Felicia probably was too.

“Yeah, okay. That’s important too, I guess,” Lip said, but he didn’t seem too preoccupied by it.

Mickey tried again. “No, I mean, she was probably getting hassled because she was hooking. Ian said he has trouble with the cops all the time, when he’s working.”

Lip looked stunned. “He does?” He turned to watch Mickey for a moment longer than was strictly safe, before jerking his face back to the street as he drove. “He mentioned that Irish cop gave him a hard time a couple times, but I didn’t…I guess I didn’t really understand how bad it was.”

Grudgingly, Mickey felt a small twist of sympathy for Lip. “I mean, I only saw it a couple times, but it was…it was pretty bad.” He didn’t want to betray Ian’s confidence, but thinking about that first night, the way O’Reilly had pushed and prodded, like he was hoping Ian would break and take a swing at him, or how he had looked at him with almost open revulsion on his face the night they called 911 about the hands, Mickey thought Lip should know at least a little of it. “It’s like…you ever heard that joke about Cuba before?” At Lip’s blank face, Mickey went on. “‘Fidel Castro was a lot of things, but he sure as hell wasn’t paranoid?’ That's what I think about with Ian and cops.”

He watched Lip absorb that information, and as the truck fell silent, he pulled out his phone. He saw a missed call from Ian and he called him back in almost the same heartbeat.

When Ian answered, something in Mickey’s chest unwound slightly. “Mickey?”

“Hey, dude,” Mickey said quietly, twisting his body slightly for privacy. “How’d it go in Pilsen?”

Ian sighed. He sounded miserable.

“That bad, huh?” Mickey said worriedly.

“You ever feel like a lot of people would be a lot better off without you?” Ian asked, his voice dull.

Mickey hunched over the phone in alarm. “Alright, Suicide Watch, let’s dial it back. Are you back at the apartment?”

“I’m being babysat by Colin and Svetlana in front of the building as we speak. Since nobody is in love with the idea of leaving me on my own, like a normal person.” He voice sounded grumpy now rather than deadened, which was somewhat of a relief.

“You okay, Ian?” Mickey asked anyway.

“Can you make goulash for dinner tonight?” Ian asked, instead of answering. He sounded so sweetly hopeful.

“Sure, bud,” Mickey said softly. “Anything you want.”

They were just a few blocks from the apartment now. Lip kept glancing at Mickey. “Is that Ian?” he asked finally. “Is he okay?”

Mickey ignored him. “I’ll be home in three minutes.”

“Alright, start the clock,” Ian said. Mickey thought he could hear a smile in his voice. He hung up.

When they parked in front of the apartment, Mickey could see Colin and Svetlana protectively flanking a thin, pale figure on the concrete steps in front of the vestibule. He could just make out Ian’s bright red hair between the shelter of their bodies.

Lip was out of the car like a flash again, moving quickly toward Ian. Mickey let himself out of the car slightly slower, not wanting to crowd the poor kid.

But Ian had other ideas. He stood up abruptly from the porch when he saw Mickey approaching, pulling away from Svetlana’s grip on his shoulder, walking past Lip without a glance until he met Mickey as he stepped onto the curb.

Ian came to a standstill with about a half-foot of space between them.

“Hey,” he said, sounding a little breathless. His chest rose unsteadily.

“Hey,” Mickey said back. They stared at each other like idiots for a second.

Mickey was wondering if they would just live on that curbside for the rest of their lives, drinking each other in with their eyes, when Ian lurched forward and threw himself into Mickey’s arms, Mickey stepping back with the force.

“Hey,” he said again, this time in concern. “Hey, tough guy. It’s okay. Just breathe, man.” Ian didn’t answer, grabbing Mickey’s shirt and wrapping his arms tighter around his neck instead. He sounded like he was gasping for air. Mickey let himself rub one palm in soothing circles over his back.

“Take it easy, Ian,” he said softly into Ian’s ear. “It’s cool. Everything’s cool.”

After a while, Ian’s grip became less strangling and he seemed to settle. Mickey didn’t let go of him right away. He’d been a little shaken up from the day too, he realized, and it felt good to hold Ian in that moment.

“Ian?” Lip said quietly. He had come to stand near Ian’s shoulder without Mickey even noticing, so wrapped up in pulling the kid close so he would stop shaking. Ian went still, and Mickey noted with satisfaction that he wasn’t breathing quite as jerkily.

“Hey, Lip,” Ian said. He smiled wanly at Lip. Mickey loosened his grip so Ian could step back a little. “Have fun with Mickey today?”

Lip grinned, glancing at Mickey. “We had a whale of a time. Right, Mick?”

“Go fuck yourself,” Mickey retorted. He let go of Ian completely so he could move closer to his brother, watching Lip speak softly to him.

“How’d it go today?” he asked Colin, stepping aside as he watched Lip guide Ian toward the apartment building.

Colin looked unsettled. “I don’t know, man. I miss straight-forward mafia business, that’s for sure. Break some knee caps, sell some coke, traffic some illegal arms? I get that. All this murder shit is above my fucking pay grade.”

“I hear that,” Mickey said, with feeling. He felt his eyes drift over like magnets to Ian again.

Svetlana and Lip were standing on either side of Ian like secret service agents ready to take a bullet for his safety. Svetlana was speaking softly to Ian, Lip hovering closer, and Ian nodded once. Mickey sighed. It seemed pretty cruel to rip him from the bosom of the two pushy idiots so intent on physically shielding him. As much as he wanted Ian to himself tonight, he relented anyway.

“Who wants fucking goulash?” Mickey said loudly. Colin promptly raised his hand like they were in math class. Lip and Svetlana glanced up in surprise, like they’d forgotten they were standing outside of Mickey’s apartment building. Ian watched him warily, a concerned pucker between his eyebrows. Mickey rolled his eyes at him and a corner of Ian’s mouth quirked. “Jesus, let’s see some hustle. Move your asses, inside, let’s go.”

He unlocked the door to the vestibule and held it open, waving his arms like an irritable third base coach until Svetlana, Lip and Colin began making their way inside the building.

Ian held back, the last to walk in as he paused to look Mickey in the eye. “We having a dinner party?” he asked, sounding teasing. Sounding like himself.

“Shut the fuck up and get inside,” Mickey said. He tried to hide his smile, but it was a losing battle, especially when he felt Ian squeeze his hand as he walked past. Mickey let the vestibule door fall shut, grinning in earnest as he followed Ian up the stairs where he could hear Svetlana, Colin and Lip already arguing outside the apartment.

Chapter Text

Mickey had been hiding in the kitchen cooking dinner for the last hour, and Ian was trying not to hover. He was being minimally successful.

“What’s the ETA on that goulash, man?” Colin called from his sprawl on the couch in the living room.

“I will kill you with my bare hands, I swear to god,” Mickey called back gruffly.

From his own perch on the stool at the kitchen counter, roughly equidistant between Mickey’s safe haven in the kitchen and Svetlana, Lip and Colin’s loud argument about the realism of procedural crime dramas in the living room, Ian bit his lip to restrain himself from discreetly asking Mickey if he was okay for the fifth time.

Instead, he tapped his hands idly on the counter. “You need any help?” he asked. He was pretty sure he’d only asked that question two or three times so far.

“Unless you possess the ability to make stew boil quicker than the laws of physics currently dictate, then no, dude. No, I don’t.” Mickey’s voice was still gruff, but when he peeked behind at Ian, his face was softer than he sounded.

Ian couldn’t help but feel guilty as he watched this bizarre evening unfold. He felt like he’d let the barbarians at the gate in and they were now sacking Mickey’s carefully constructed fortress. Or maybe he was reading too much into it, it wasn’t like he’d held a gun to Mickey’s head or anything, demanding he invite everyone back for dinner after their foray into investigative police work that afternoon, but still. He was pretty sure that, if left to his own devices, Mickey would not have invited Ian’s brother or the Russian prostitute who was partially responsible for his sexual traumatization into his home.

He probably wouldn’t have even fucking invited Colin, Ian figured, and they were brothers.

In the living room, the argument was swelling to volumes that easily eclipsed the actual sounds of Law and Order playing on the TV.

“My question is, why are these assholes falling all over themselves revealing their dastardly evil plans at the drop of a hat like a Scooby Doo villain?” Lip was shouting over Colin and Svetlana’s protests. “I mean, lawyer up, asshole. Jesus.”

“Like cop has ever cared about calls for lawyers,” Svetlana interrupted stridently.

“Cops may not care, but the constitution cares!” Lip yelled back, barely audible over Colin’s raucous laughter.

“Listen to Mr. Higher Education over here and his confidence in the justice system,” Colin said derisively.

“Such confidence,” Svetlana said with a smirk. “Is adorable, really.”

“Fuck you guys,” Lip said sullenly.

Ian propped his head on his hands as he idly watched the three bicker. He could admit he was grateful for the distraction of their presence. His head was still spinning from the day’s weird events, and it felt like wrapping himself up in a security blanket made up of the smell of dinner cooking, Mickey moving quietly around in the kitchen, and the white noise of the stupid argument going down in the living room.

So maybe he did understand why Mickey had invited them back. It made him feel warm, that Mickey would do something that so obviously pained him just so Ian might be comforted. It was a little scary too, knowing he had that kind of power.

He slid off the stool, wandering over to lean against the fridge. He watched Mickey stir the pot on the stove and make a face, then add in more salt and pepper. Mickey noticed him watching and raised an eyebrow.

“Can I help you with something, you weirdo?” he asked.

The urge to touch, to run his hands over Mickey’s shoulders and wrap his arms around his chest, was so strong it made Ian’s fingers twitch. He managed to smile slightly and keep his feet in one place.

“Not really,” he said. He wanted to say thank you, but he settled on watching a blush creep up Mickey’s neck as he turned back to the goulash with a scowl.

“Bring the bowls and spoons out then, if you’re done staring,” Mickey said, gesturing to the cupboards beside him.

As Ian stepped by to reach the bowls, he swooped in with catlike speed and pressed a kiss to the back of Mickey’s pinkening neck. He lurched in surprise, swatting at Ian over his shoulder, but Ian grabbed the bowls and escaped into the living room before he could do much else.

In the living room, Lip, Svetlana and Colin had turned their collective ire to heckling the characters on-screen. Ian tried not to block their view as he set things out for dinner. It wasn’t like there was a kitchen table or even a coffee table to gather around, so Ian set the bowls and spoons on the carpet in front of the couch, settling down to sit cross-legged.

Mickey finally emerged from the kitchen hauling the steaming pot with twin raggedy potholders. He gamely ignored everyone in the room hungrily watching his approach and set the pot on a folded towel right on the carpet.

“Eat up, you dickheads,” he said. He dropped the ladle inside with a flourish and collapsed next to Ian on the ground. “And don’t fucking burn yourselves, either.”

Ian tried not to beam too hard at him, because he knew it was probably creepy. He caught Svetlana watching him and ducked his head, but not before he caught her epic, Oscar-worthy eye roll.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Svetlana moved almost automatically to dish out the stew into each bowl. Mickey watched her suspiciously, but she seemed to be doing her best to avoid looking at him.

“All the comforts of home, huh?” Lip drawled, cradling the hot bowl on his lap.

Ian reached over to thwack Lip on the knee, but Mickey shrugged his shoulders, not even insulted. “I don’t know what to tell you, man. Go back to fancy dorm life.”

“There’s no such thing as fancy—no, I’m not arguing about this again,” Lip said, taking a breath. There was obviously some undertone here Ian wasn’t catching, but he saw Mickey smirk to himself and relaxed slightly anyway. Then Lip took an actual bite of the stew and his eyes went wide. “Holy shit.” He swallowed and took another mouthful. “That’s good. That’s really good, dude. Shit.”

Colin smiled broadly through his own mouthful of food. “I know, right? Mick’s insane with food, I don’t know where he gets it.”

Mickey held up a hand in disgust. “Would you close your mouth when you chew, you animal?”

Svetlana took her own bite, chewing thoughtfully. “Goulash, is good,” she offered. She hadn’t said a word since Mickey had moved into the living room, like she was worried about taking up too much space. Ian wondered what had sparked the shift. Her voice was hesitant. “My mother, she would always add, the cream? The sour cream?” Then she stopped. “Not that this is not…your way is good too.”

Ian looked at her. He’d never heard Svetlana mention her mother, ever, in all the time he’d known her. She’d talked about sisters, her terrible father, but Ian had almost forgotten that she must have a mother too, of course she did.

Mickey's foot rested against Ian’s ankle, so he could feel him tense slightly. He also didn’t respond verbally, making a grunting sound and staring at his own bowl of food.

For his part, Ian was intrigued by the idea of Svetlana’s mother cooking for her in Russia, making goulash with a special dollop of sour cream. “Did your mother cook a lot?” he asked her.

Svetlana gave him a look that was the opposite of the careful, obsequious expression she’d been trying out on Mickey. “All mothers cook,” she said flatly.

Lip snorted from the couch. “Not all mothers,” he said, grinning. He glanced at Ian. “Remember when Monica tried to make mac and cheese and broke the oven?”

Ian cracked a smile. “Fiona was so fucking mad, she wouldn’t let Monica near the kitchen for a month. Like, she wouldn’t even let her use the back stairs to get to the bedrooms since you had to pass through the kitchen to get to them.”

He watched Lip pause, like he wanted to say something, but then he seemed to change his mind and took a big mouthful of goulash instead.

Mickey was frowning in puzzlement. “How in the fuck,” he said slowly, “do you break an oven?”

His face was such a picture of total, adorable, almost exquisite misunderstanding that Ian choked on the goulash in his mouth as he started to laugh. He had to drop his bowl to the ground and throw his hands over his mouth, coughing and laughing, he could feel his face getting red but every time he started to settle he’d glance at Mickey again, at how he was still frowning, and break down again.

Colin reached over and punched Mickey lightly in the shoulder. “Not everyone’s gifted like you are in the kitchen, little bro,” he said.

Mickey shoved him back. “Don’t fucking call me that,” he grumbled. And that set Ian off again. He didn’t know why he was so giddy tonight. Maybe this was it, this was his mental break, but he didn’t hate it. It felt good to laugh so hard his stomach hurt, even if Lip and Mickey were watching him like he was a maniac.

Finally, carefully, he began to wind down. Mickey was full-on scowling. “Are you fucking done yet, you ass?” he asked.

Ian wiped the tears off his cheeks, still grinning so hard the muscles at the corner of his mouth were aching. “I think…yes. I think I’m good, for now.”

It was probably beyond lame, and it wasn’t like he wasn’t stupidly obsessed with every goofy iteration of Mickey’s fluid personality, but Ian thought the grumpy potato that sat before him now was probably his favorite. He kept having to remind himself they weren’t alone, they were surrounded by their brothers and Svetlana, and it wasn’t like he’d ever been a big fan of public touching before, but shit, all he wanted to do was tackle Mickey to the floor and cuddle the hell out of him. Man, he was in trouble.

Beside him, Mickey nudged his hip with his foot. “Fucking eat, it’s getting cold.” Ian obliged, taking a bite of stew. Lip was right, it was good. It might be Mickey's best batch yet.

They ate quietly for a while, the sound of the TV playing cop shows in the background, until Svetlana spoke up quietly. “So, where do we stand with girls?”

Lip tipped his head to the side. “Well, I think if Harriet Bell and Felicia Ramirez don’t end up being the girls that Ian found, then I owe everyone here a million dollars.”

When Svetlana frowned, Ian leaned so he could judge her knee on the couch with his shoulder. “He means you were right. You figured out who they were.” He smiled at her and held up his flat hand.

She arched an eyebrow. "I hate the high five," she said sourly, but gave Ian a high five anyway.

But then he remembered the more important, and more chilling, detail of the afternoon that Lip and Mickey didn't know, and his smile drifted away. “Harriet Bell was born on Wallace Street,” Ian told them. It took them a minute, but then the significance dawned and they looked suitably shocked.

“Fuck,” Mickey said. “Well that makes narrowing down suspects fucking impossible.”

Ian nodded. If the girls were from the neighborhood, but so was everyone Ian had ever seriously dated or even known, then they were kind of at a dead end. But the thought of widening the net to include every trick, every person Ian may have come across in his life was also, to put it lightly, disheartening.

“What about that Ned guy?” Colin piped up. At Ian’s surprised face, he nodded at Mickey. “Mick said you were going to meet up with some old guy. Maybe he’ll surprise you.”

Ian didn’t respond. He seriously doubted smooth, urbane Ned was the one who was hunting and murdering young women to send Ian a message, but then again, Ian’s life was falling to pieces, so what the fuck did he know?

Everyone was quiet for a while as they ate their dinner, each lost in their own thoughts.

“Speaking of surprises,” Lip said after a while, drawing his spoon in circles through his goulash as he spoke, “you feel like taking a trip to Aurora?” He looked up at Ian with his eyebrows raised.

“I don’t know, maybe?” Ian said. He kept his face neutral, his and Lip’s old secret code for, tell me more but be cool about it so Fiona doesn’t hear. “I hear it’s beautiful this time of year.” A corner of Lip’s mouth lifted in response.

Mickey cut in. “What the hell’s in Aurora?”

Lip didn’t look away from Ian, like he was bracing himself. “Fiona. Debs, too.”

Well, that hadn’t been what he was expecting. Ian felt rather than saw Svetlana and Mickey go still on either side of him like sentinels.

“You heard from Fiona?” he asked quietly.

“Well, ‘heard from’ implies a level of agency that might be a little inaccurate,” Lip said. “What actually happened was, I called her cell phone number a bunch of times, and then when she didn’t pick up, I called it from an unlisted number and I think she answered on accident, but when she heard it was me, she hung up. Then I called again, and that time Debbie picked up, and we talked for a second before Fiona made her get off the phone. It’s been going straight to voicemail since then, and neither of them responds to my text messages. Then, a few days ago, I got an address. That was it. Just a street name and house number in Aurora. Which I figure was probably from Debs.”

Letting that information roll over him, Ian rubbed both hands over his face. “What the fuck is going on with them?” he said, his voice muffled through his fingers.

“I know,” Lip said back. He was frowning. “It was weird. Everything is weird.”

“That’s some cloak and dagger bullshit,” Mickey agreed affably.

Lip’s eyes flickered to Mickey in annoyance. “Thanks for weighing in,” he said.

“Did they sound okay?” Ian couldn’t help but blurt out. He felt that familiar twinge of alarm he used to get when Fiona was late picking him up from T-ball practice, or forgot to call and tell them she picked up a late shift at work, and Ian would know, in a brief horrible moment of preteen melodrama, that this was it, Fiona was dead, and he was going to have to start a new life on his own now.

He’d never felt the same panic about Monica or Frank, but then, neither of them had ever made a point to be the dependable constant in Ian’s life, so he never learned to expect it of them.

Lip considered Ian’s question. “Fiona sounded pissed off, when she realized it was me and I’d tricked her into answering. Debbie was chattering a mile a minute before Fiona made her hang up.” He paused, smiling. “So, yeah. They sounded like themselves, I guess.”

“Why do you think Fiona’s trying so hard to keep them both off the grid?” Ian asked, completely puzzled.

“Search me,” Lip replied. He sounded equally troubled.

“So, when are you going to go down to Aurora, then?” Mickey asked Ian, and Ian bit his lip, stalling. He looked at Lip.

“Maybe I should go see her first?” Lip offered. “See what’s going on with them, then report back.”

Ian nodded in agreement, immediately relieved at Lip’s willingness to take this on like he’d taken on every other weird task Ian had thrown his way in the last few months.

Mickey nudged Ian’s knee with his foot. “If you want to see Fiona, go see Fiona. She’s not the queen. You don’t have to follow some sort of court etiquette and send a scout ahead first,” he said, jerking his chin to indicate Lip.

“I’m not, that’s not what I’m doing,” Ian tried to argue, but then he stopped, because it felt like a lie. It had been over a year since he’d talked to Fiona. Maybe he was using Lip as a crutch. Was he afraid of seeing Fiona? He wasn’t really sure.

“Should we try and tell her what’s going on with you?” Lip asked, redirecting slightly.

Ian felt both his eyebrows go to his head and he and Lip just looked at each other, equally at a loss. Ian had no idea if they should tell Fiona. Ian had no idea if Fiona would even want to have all this on her plate. She seemed like she was working pretty hard to disentangle herself from the Gallagher web in general.

It was Svetlana that interjected. “No,” she said firmly. “Enough people know. This is not dark family secret that needs to see light of day on daytime television. This is serious.”

“Yeah, who the hell cares about dark family secrets,” Mickey said sourly, and Svetlana went still.

Colin, happily oblivious, was nodding his head. “I think she’s right,” he said. “Shit’s getting pretty real over here, might as well keep it under wraps for now.” He noticed Mickey glaring at him. “What? Just an opinion, dude.”

They were all scraping the bottom of their bowls at this point, Lip and Colin vying silently for the last scoop of goulash at the bottom of the pot. Mickey stood up roughly to gather the bowls.

Ian tried to help. “Hey, let me—”

Mickey pulled the bowls and empty pot into his own arms. “Just let me, dude,” he said tiredly, shooting Svetlana a glare. He stomped into the kitchen.

The clang of dishes in the sink generally seemed to signal the end of the party. Svetlana seemed more than ready to flee and Colin followed her to the door, babbling about Days Of Our Lives (obviously) while Svetlana studiously ignored him. Ian couldn’t help but sigh. He loved Svetlana, and seeing her standing guiltily at the door hurt his heart. But he also didn’t think her and Mickey were ever going to be able to stand each other. Which was fair, he supposed, even though it sucked. He followed the three to the door.

As Lip got ready to leave too, pulling on his coat, Ian touched his elbow. “Look what I got in the mail,” he said. He took the rumpled card from Carl and Liam’s new dads out of his back pocket where he'd taken to idly carrying it around.

He watched as Lip took it and smoothed it out on his thigh. He read it carefully, his eyebrows shooting up. He looked at Ian.

“Did you get a card like this too?” Ian asked.

Lip shook his head. “Thomas and Steve started telling me I was coming around too often last year, and the last few times I called they said the boys were too busy for me to be dropping by every other week.” Lip made a frustrated sound. “I kind of lost my temper and said some shit, and now they don’t even pick up when I call.”

Ian wondered why they were reaching out to him, if they’d already told Lip to back off. Maybe Ian seemed like less of a threat. “When’s the last time you saw Carl and Liam?”

“Almost three months ago. Mid-July, maybe?” Lip sighed. “I mean, they’re douchebags when they talk to me, but they’re good dads to Carl and Liam. I don’t know. Maybe they had a point.”

Making a face, Ian shook his head. “Well, they may be good dads, but you’re a good brother. I think they need to get their heads out of their asses and realize that, too.”

Lip smiled crookedly. “Careful, all that flattery might go to my head.” He handed the card back to Ian, his smile fading. “You’re a good brother too, you know.” Seeing the dismissive face Ian made, Lip put a hand on Ian’s shoulder and shook gently. “Hey, I’m serious. You are.”

Ian didn’t really agree, but he figured it was pointless to argue when Lip had that stubborn tilt to his mouth. “Maybe I’ll call about visiting Carl and Liam, and you can come with too. Steve and Thomas wouldn’t have to know beforehand.”

“The ol’ bait and switch,” Lip said, smirking. “Nice.” He looked over Ian’s shoulder into the kitchen. “Why don’t we get out of your hair so you can go take of your boy in there, yeah? Sounds like he’s pretty tense.” He waggled his eyebrows with a leery grin.

Ian made a face. “Please don’t,” he said. He was glad Lip seemed cooler about him and Mickey, but there was a line. He turned away from Lip to hug Svetlana, and after a cheerful wave from Colin, they were all out the door.

In the sudden silence of the apartment, Ian exhaled. “And, they’re gone,” he said quietly, mostly to himself. He had loved having Lip and Svetlana, and even Colin, over, but now he took a moment to bask in the peace.

He heard something clang loudly in the kitchen. “Thank fucking god,” Mickey called out, with feeling.

Ian went into the kitchen and saw Mickey leaning against the sink on straight arms. With no reason to fight the impulse anymore, Ian came forward to wrap his arms around him from behind. He rested his chin on Mickey’s head.

“Thank you,” he murmured.

Mickey shook his head, but he didn’t disrupt Ian’s hold on him, instead leaning back a little. “For what, man? There’s nothing to thank me for.”

Ian let his hands drift under the hem of Mickey’s shirt, rubbing up his soft belly. “I think you know what for,” he said. He pressed a kiss to the side of Mickey’s head. A spark of heat was climbing up his own spine and he decided to push more than he usually did, which was to say, at all. “And I think maybe you deserve a reward.”

Mickey turned in the tight space of Ian’s arms, looking up at him with bright eyes. “Yeah?”

Ian smiled, leaning forward to lick at the seam of Mickey’s lips until he gasped and Ian could seal his mouth over Mickey’s completely, licking inside. When Mickey was breathing hard, he pulled back. “Yeah, I think you do,” Ian said.

This was new for them, Ian acknowledged. They teased each other and goofed around, and made out and felt each other up, but this explicit sexual energy felt like a shift in gears. Mickey didn’t seem uncomfortable. His mouth was hanging open a little as he looked up at Ian, like he was waiting for him to make a move.

Ian took his hand and led him into the bedroom, the moment thick with intention. He pulled his shirt over his head and kicked off his pants, but when Mickey tried to follow suit he pushed his hands away, undressing him himself, before pushing him lightly toward the mattress.

Mickey landed with his hands and feet sprawled in all directions and Ian climbed on top of him, kissing up his chest and face until he reached his mouth. When their tongues tangled, Mickey made a sort of broken groaning sound and Ian was mostly gone then, getting lost in the kiss for minutes, hours, days maybe, until he remembered that this was supposed to be something special for Mickey. He pulled back, taking a moment to admire Mickey’s dazed gaze and pink skin.

Remembering how much Mickey had liked getting fingered, Ian tapped Mickey’s hip, urging him over until he was on his hands and knees, looking over his shoulder to watch what Ian was doing a little nervously. Ian ran both hands slowly down the length of Mickey’s back, feeling him shiver slightly, until they came to rest on Mickey’s ass cheeks. He clenched his fingers slightly, grabbing a handful.

“You have such a nice ass,” Ian heard himself murmur. He sounded like an idiot, but he couldn’t help it. His lizard brain just felt like Mickey deserved to know.

“Yeah, man? Ungh,” Mickey moaned out as Ian leaned forward and pressed a smacking kiss to the skin at the very bottom of his back, just above the cleft of his ass. The sudden sound made Ian go from half hard to full chub in a flash. Mickey was so responsive, Ian felt himself revving to catch up.

His heart was pounding out of his chest, but he still forced himself to pull back, to check.

“Is this okay?” he said roughly, his breathing uneven.

Mickey nodded his head jerkily. “Yeah. I mean.” He swallowed. “I think so.”

Ian smiled. “Good.” He ran one hand in a smooth circle over the curve of Mickey’s cheek. “I want to eat you out, but if you want me to stop, or you don’t like, just tell me and we’ll stop.”

Mickey was still staring at him almost helplessly over his shoulder. He opened his mouth but no words came out, so he just nodded unsteadily. Ian ran his hands up and down his sides a few more times, trying to soothe him, until they came to settle again on Mickey’s ass.

In general, rimming wasn’t Ian’s favorite thing to do. Maybe that was because he’d only done it once with Kash, which had been weird, and since then only with tricks. It had always struck him as too intimate for his tastes. He’d finally figured maybe it just wasn’t really his go-to move.

But as he leaned closer, saw the way Mickey’s legs were quivering, how tensely he was holding himself, Ian felt a strange, idle thought float through his head: maybe he’d just been rimming the wrong people.

Using his thumbs to spread Mickey apart, he paused to relish the way Mickey froze in anticipation, then leaned forward and swept his tongue firmly across the tight ring of muscle in one long lick.

“Jesus fuck,” Mickey yelped, jerking forward away from Ian’s mouth, then back just as sharply, like his body couldn’t decide whether it wanted away or to stay closer.

Ian smiled wider, exhaling softly so his breath puffed on Mickey’s exposed skin, making him twitch. He pulled back to bite firmly at the firm flesh of one ass cheek and Mickey went still again, like the sharp pain centered him. Ian kissed the mark to soothe it, licking a little before turning his attention back to Mickey’s hole.

He tensed his tongue, tracing circles around the taught shape of Mickey’s rim before exerting slight pressure, laving over it again and again until he felt the muscle loosen slightly and he could slip just the tip of his tongue inside.

“Fuck, Ian,” Mickey panted loudly, resting his head on his forearms and spreading his knees to give Ian better access. “Fuck, I can’t—jesus christ.”

His own heart pounding, his erection pressing insistently against his boxers, Ian reached a hand around to cup Mickey’s face, working with the awkward angle so he wouldn’t have to bring his mouth away from Mickey’s ass.

“Suck,” he muttered, easing his two fingers into Mickey’s mouth.

Mickey moaned, eagerly bringing Ian’s index and middle finger into his mouth, swirling his tongue around them in a way that had Ian gasping against Mickey’s skin, his tongue getting sloppier.

When he was satisfied his fingers were wet enough, he pulled his hand away, Mickey making a little noise as he tried to keep Ian’s fingers in his mouth. Pulling back to wipe at his mouth with his wrist, Ian eased a finger inside Mickey, loving the hot feel on the pad of his finger, the way Mickey sighed and pressed back on his knees.

Needing to taste him again, Ian dropped down, his tongue joining his finger, working them together in a steady, demanding rhythm, trying his best to break Mickey apart, to show him how gone Ian was on him, to finally have a use for all the otherwise mechanical sexual skills he had no idea he’d been storing up, waiting for the right person to unleash them on.

As a second finger joined Ian’s first, Mickey was going crazy, moaning into his arms, hips jerking back to press his ass closer to Ian’s face, babbling more than Ian had ever heard him before. “Please, Ian, just—fuck, that’s so…oh my god, keep doing that, please, please.”

Ian drank in the sounds he was making until he couldn’t help but release the grip his other hand had on Mickey’s ass and bring it to his own cock, stripping it in time with the tempo of his tongue and fingers in Mickey’s hole.

Ian couldn’t believe how into this he was, how much he was getting off on just making Mickey feel good, the fact that Mickey was trusting Ian to do this to him, he kind of couldn’t believe how much that was doing it for him, his jaw was aching and there was spit all down his chin and his dick was throbbing almost painfully, all his blood rushing in a hot circuit toward his groin, but Ian barely noticed, too focused on the feel and taste and sound of Mickey spread out in front of him.

When Ian’s fingers crooked and rubbed directly against Mickey’s prostate, Mickey’s back arched, his whole body going tense as he practically howled, so Ian rubbed at it over and over again, his own cock dripping precome, relentlessly torturing with his mouth and fingers until suddenly Mickey gasped. His entire body jerked once, twice, his frantic jabbering from before going silent in climax, until he went limp, his knees giving out as he slumped onto the mattress. Ian followed him over almost immediately, it only took him half a dozen more jerks and he was coming too, painting Mickey’s bare ass with come before collapsing beside him.

The air felt like it was buzzing in the sudden quiet aftermath, the only sounds their ragged breathing.

When Ian was only gasping softly, he propped himself up on his elbow. “Holy shit,” he said. “You just came untouched.”

Mickey’s face was red and shiny as he peered back at Ian. “Is that a big deal?”

“Well. It’s definitely the hottest fucking thing I’ve ever seen,” Ian said. Even that felt like an understatement. He almost wished he had the energy to go again, because he’d probably be able to jerk off to just the memory of the sounds Mickey had been making, the sight of him twitching and jerking from Ian’s mouth and fingers.

He watched Mickey twist around until he could bury his face in the pillow. His whole body was trembling slightly.

Ian pulled himself closer despite his sudden fatigue, throwing an arm around Mickey’s back, overcome with the need to cuddle and soothe and wrap Mickey up in himself. “Hey,” he whispered into his temple. “You okay?”

He could hear Mickey swallow thickly. “Yeah, that was just,” he said, his voice wobbly, “really intense.”

Ian pulled him closer, throwing a leg over his hip until he was more or less cocooning Mickey with his body. He wanted to tell him it was intense for him too, that it was more intense than anything he’d ever done with another person before. For once though, his brain was empty, wrung completely dry. He nosed against Mickey’s hairline, trying to comfort him with sleepy hms and sighs until he felt the other boy start to relax, his shakes dissipating until he settled deep into the mattress.

Ian was almost asleep when he heard Mickey mutter tiredly into the darkness. “Thank you.”

Ian’s eyes cracked open, widening momentarily in shock. All the words he wanted to say in response became dammed up in his chest in a sudden swell of emotion. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been thanked after sex, or if he ever had. He felt his own hands start to tremble this time. He pulled Mickey as close as he could, disregarding the tacky feel of drying come and sweat between them, trying to show Mickey the things he felt that he suddenly couldn’t say. Mickey seemed to understand though, tilting his head just slightly so Ian could more easily press his face into Mickey’s neck.

He fell asleep with his lips pressed to the soft hair at Mickey’s nape, inhaling until the scent of his skin was all he knew.

 

****

 

The weirdest thing about the next morning, Mickey decided, was how not weird it was.

When he woke up, he was alone on the mattress, but he could hear Ian making noise in the kitchen. He realized that him and Ian were largely on the same schedule now, and he liked waking up knowing that Ian would probably be awake too, not passed out on the couch from working late while Mickey crept out to meet his uncle for the day.

He paused, throwing his hands over his head and stretching luxuriously against the sheets. His legs and belly were sore, but overall he felt jellylike and content. Flashes of the night before shot through his mind and he flushed, even as he felt a smile work its way across his face. Ian was right, he thought to himself, he was definitely into butt stuff.

He went to the bathroom, feeling anxious to finish up and go see Ian. Like Ian was some kind of magic apparition he’d fantasized into being, and he wanted to make sure he hadn’t disappeared yet. He grumbled at his own inanity as he rushed through brushing his teeth.

But Ian was indeed there, standing in the kitchen, fiddling with the coffeemaker and humming off-key. He turned at the shuffling sounds Mickey’s socks made on the hardwood floor and smiled, wide and uninhibited. Mickey wondered what that was like, being so unafraid to let every emotion you were feeling play across your face.

“Morning,” Ian said brightly.

“Sup,” Mickey said in return, tugging at his hair self-consciously, deciding that he would try and play it cool. He grabbed a spare mug and went to sit at the counter.

When he sat down on the stool, Ian sidled over. Mickey turned his head automatically, expecting a kiss, but Ian swooped down and pressed his face roughly to the side of Mickey’s neck instead, nudging with his forehead so he could nuzzle along his jaw. He thought he felt Ian inhaling, like he was sucking in Mickey’s scent. He hoped he didn’t smell too bad, like dried come and desperation, but even if he did, Ian didn’t seem to mind.

Mickey let himself rock back with the motion, blushing like an asshole and fighting the urge to grin.

When Ian pulled back just enough to look him in the eye, Mickey gave in and felt a small, shy smile ease its way onto his face. “Did you just head butt me?” he asked.

Ian reached to grab the coffee pot with a shrug. “Sure did.” He held up the pot, eyeing Mickey’s mug. “You want some more?” Mickey could only nod.

He wondered if it was normal to want to stare at someone this much, if his intense, almost compulsive need to drink Ian in with his eyes across the counter was weird. Maybe it was just a natural reaction when faced with the person who had given you the most intense orgasm of your life the night before. Mickey had no idea. He added it to the growing list of pressing questions he was working up the nerve to ask Mandy about.

In fairness, Ian seemed pretty caught up staring at Mickey too. His smile was still half-hanging on his face like he’d forgotten it was there while he raked his eyes over Mickey from his hairline to his chin and back up again, like he was memorizing every inch of his face. It made Mickey blush, if possible, even harder.

Ian’s mouth opened like he was about to say something, but his phone chirped. Frowning, he glanced away, pulling it out of his pocket to look at the screen. Mickey found that he was pretty irritated at the disruption too.

“It’s Ned,” Ian said, still frowning. “He said he can meet at the club tonight.”

“What club?” Mickey asked, drinking deeply of his coffee to try and distract himself from the sudden wave of jealousy he felt at Ned’s name.

“The White Swallow,” Ian said, smirking at Mickey’s dramatic eye roll. “Shut up, I know. But I used to work there back in the day dancing and stuff.”

He noticed the way Ian was tapping his long fingers nervously on the counter. “Is this a bad thing? Do you not want to meet him?”

“Well, I haven’t been back to the club since I got fired,” he said, a little breezily, and didn’t elaborate on what that meant. “And I really don’t think Ned’s involved with any of this, Plus, he’s pretty smart. I don’t think we’re going to be able to get anything out of him that he doesn’t want to tell us.”

Mickey raised his eyebrows. “If he’s so goddamn smart, then we’ll just have to be straightforward. Maybe that'll throw him. Liars lie, and they expect everybody else to lie, too.”

“Maybe.” Ian looked away thoughtfully. “You’ll see what I mean, I guess.”

Mickey was annoyed that the easy calm of the morning was already disrupted. He hadn’t even met this Ned asshole yet, but he was already a pain in the fucking neck.

He set his coffee down. “Well, I have to go help with some car parts that fell off the back of a truck.” He peeked at Ian through his lashes, feeling shy again. “You want to come with? We can have Colin drive us to the club tonight afterwards.”

Ian smiled broadly. It made Mickey feel a little loopy, like he could spend his whole day just smiling back at Ian like he had a traumatic brain injury or something.

“Sure. Let’s do it,” Ian said happily. “I wasn’t looking forward to sitting around the apartment all day anyway.”

It was kind of amazing after that, how quickly the day went having Ian around, even when it was doing something as mind-numbing as unpacking and cataloguing stolen car parts in a big drafty warehouse. It was just Ian, Mickey and Colin, and Ronnie’s guy Owen, who scowled at his phone most of the time and huffed when Colin and Mickey bickered too much and told them not to fight. All of Ronnie’s guys seemed to feel like they needed to be the parent when Ronnie wasn’t around, and Owen was no exception. Mickey found it an annoying inconvenience but generally pointless to get worked up about, like the summer heat or telemarketers. He thought his uncle might as well have come tonight if Owen was going to boss them around anyway, though.

At the same time, he also knew his uncle was giving Ian space, which Mickey could appreciate even if Ian seemed to think it was smoking gun evidence that Ronnie hated Ian like he owed him money.

He didn’t seem to believe Mickey when he tried to convince him otherwise either, so he dropped it. Luckily, Colin was a good distraction, making fun of Mickey with Ian and telling stupid corny jokes that made Ian throw his head back and laugh, Mickey quietly admiring the smooth line of his neck when he did so.

Before Mickey knew it, it was almost ten and they were wrapping up, putting car parts away as Owen waved and walked off into the night. Mickey smacked Colin lightly on the knee. “Yo, we need a ride.”

“You assholes owe me for gas,” Colin grumbled, getting out his keys to jingle in his palms as Mickey and Ian followed him to the Oldsmobile.

“I’ve got ten bucks I think,” Ian offered right away, the goddamn boy scout, going for his pocket, but Mickey stilled his hand, shaking his head as Colin unlocked the car and they got inside.

“Uncle Ronnie pays you for gas and you know it,” Mickey said.

Colin scratched his nose sheepishly. “Only forty cents on the dollar,” he muttered, but let it drop.

Ian directed them across town as Colin asked pointed questions about Svetlana. Ian gave him a weird look but told him Svetlana was almost twenty and that no, Colin, he wasn’t sure if she liked Italian food. He glanced at Mickey, who looked away. He didn’t think Colin really knew who Svetlana was to Mickey, not completely, but either way it made Mickey feel strange hearing Colin so obviously angling for an in. Mickey was relieved when they finally got up to the North Side and Ian had Colin pull up to the curb of one of the clubs.

“You cool to wait out here?” Mickey asked Colin as he and Ian got out. He rolled his eyes as Colin whipped out a Soap Digest from the glove compartment.

“I’m good to go,” Colin said with a grin. He nodded at the middle console. “There’s a new book of Sudokus in there too.”

Mickey just shook his head as Ian led him away. “And I’m the nerd,” he said under his breath.

Mickey had never been to this part of Boystown before and he felt suddenly underdressed and out of shape. All the dudes walking around and standing in line for clubs looked like they’d already forgotten more than Mickey could ever hope to learn about hair care. He ran a hand over his head self-consciously, but Ian pulled him along like they belonged there, bringing them to a club with a bright red door and a long line circling the block.

“I don’t got ID on me, man,” Mickey said, realizing he’d left his fake at home like a dickhead. They had been planning to go to a club, after all. It was like his head was filled with carbonated air these days when he was around Ian.

Ian smiled faintly. “We don’t need ID, man,” he said. “We’re the bread and butter of this place.” Ian pulled Mickey to the front, nodding at the bouncer like he knew him. The bouncer nodded back impassively and unhooked the velvet rope to usher Ian and Mickey inside. Mickey forcibly tried to not feel too impressed.

The vestibule by the coat check was crowded and Mickey was already sweating under his coat. Ian pulled it off his shoulders and tossed it onto the counter along with his own, again cutting the line and nodding at the chick taking coats and handing out tickets like he knew her, too. She smiled back at Ian with a wink. Did he fucking know everyone at this shitty goddamn club, Mickey wondered crossly.

“I maybe should warn you,” Ian said as they walked toward the main door where loud bass music was pumping, “this club is kind of a, it’s for people who…”

Mickey gave him a light shove. “Oh my god, fucking spit it out before you choke.”

Ian shoved him back, raising an eyebrow. “I’m just trying to tell you, it’s kind of an exhibitionist hangout.”

“I don’t know what that means,” Mickey said dumbly. Sure, he knew what the word meant, but he didn’t really understand what Ian was trying to tell him. “What, is this like a sex club?” The thought made his heart pound with nerves.

Ian shook his head. “Not really. Well. You’ll see what I mean in a second.” Before Mickey could ask any more questions, Ian was pushing the door open and tugging him inside.

The first thing Mickey saw were two dudes more or less fucking on the dance floor in front of them. Their pants were on, but they were panting and red-faced, and Mickey was pretty sure one or both were just about to come from rutting against each other. He sidestepped them, only to come across another couple sprawled on a leather couch, one guy openly palming the other through his tight black jeans. He glanced up and saw a couple guys on raised platforms, gyrating in tiny gold shorts as men below them ran their hands up and down their bare legs.

Mickey swallowed, eyes darting around until he found a safe space that didn’t have writhing bodies leaning against or on top of it: the red EXIT sign. He took a deep breath, focusing on how the flashing house lights made the sign look like it was throbbing.

He felt Ian tug on his arm. “You cool, man?” he shouted over the music. Mickey couldn’t really hear him, but he could mostly read his lips, so he nodded.

“I’m fucking fine, jesus,” he said sharply. Ian’s grin flashed and Mickey felt his muscles begin to loosen slightly.

As they waded deeper into the club, Mickey tried not to stare. He didn’t consider himself a prude necessarily (how could you really be a prude if you’d literally had someone’s tongue up your asshole the night before, he thought smugly), but glancing around the club and catching glimpses of people and movement in the flashing lights, he was hit with the clarity of sudden realization: this scene was not for him. He didn’t begrudge any of these weirdoes getting their freak on, but nope. He felt like someone had rung the doorbell, offering a box filled with something he’d always been curious about, and he’d opened it, seen the contents, and shut it closed again, pressing it back into the messenger’s hands. No thank you.

Beside him, Ian had an easy smile on his face. He scanned the room like he didn’t really care about any of it. He glanced down at Mickey and frowned a little. “You okay?” he asked, shouting to be heard over the bass-heavy house music.

“I’m fine,” Mickey huffed, because he wasn’t a fucking pussy. “I’m just not about that life.” He gestured vaguely around the room, at where he could see three men jerking each other off in the corner, the flashes of cock out in the open a little jarring. Jesus.

“Yeah?” Ian said, leaning close so his mouth was right at Mickey’s ear.

Mickey almost shivered but turned the motion into an uneasy roll of his shoulders. “Why, you into it?” he demanded.

Ian smirked at him. “It’s not my thing, but one or two of my regulars were all about it, you know, getting it on in public,” he said, shrugging. He took a step closer, and now he was definitely crowding Mickey back against the bar. Mickey glared up at him, but the defiance was slightly muted when he stumbled a little, his back pressing against the cool metal edge of the bar.

Ian reached up to hold Mickey’s chin between his thumb and forefinger. “I can kind of see the appeal, though,” he said. As he spoke against Mickey’s ear, Ian used his other thumb to press Mickey’s ear closed, and just like that, he could easily hear Ian, his voice muffled but easy to understand over the music. That was a cool-ass trick, Mickey thought, impressed, but was instantly distracted when Ian brought the lobe of Mickey’s ear between his teeth and bit down gently, dragging on the skin until Mickey hissed as he pulled away. “I wouldn’t mind showing everybody that you’re here with me. That I can touch you but they can’t.”

Mickey swallowed, feeling hot and even sweatier than he’d been in the vestibule, off-kilter from the music and half-hard in his pants as Ian loomed over him. “Did you really used to work here?” he asked in a weak attempt to distract Ian from kissing him in public. Which was a lame hang up after everything, he knew, but he couldn't help the reticence.

“For a while,” Ian said. He smiled for real this time, seeming to notice how twitchy Mickey was. He stepped back slightly so he wasn’t crowding Mickey’s space quite so much. “Not all gay clubs are like this, man. This one’s kind of a specialty place.”

If Ian was trying to comfort him, Mickey wanted to tell him he was doing kind of a shitty job. He didn’t like to think of Ian working here, fifteen or sixteen with no one looking out for him. He wondered why Ian had gotten fired, but he also didn’t really want to ask, so he obediently let Ian lead him to a slightly more secluded corner of the club that was thankfully free of horny assholes having sex, and also quieter. They settled in to wait for Ned. It didn't take long. It felt like stepping into someone's lair.

“Is that my little ginger snap?” a slow, syrupy-slick voice said over Mickey’s shoulder. He couldn’t help but jerk in surprise as he turned around.

The man behind him was a lot less physically intimidating than Mickey might’ve expected. His face was lined and handsome, his shoulders broad, his posture perfect. He was nearly Ian’s height, who he was watching intently.

“Ian,” he said, his voice low but still somehow audible over the bass from the dance floor. “It’s so good to see you.” The strange part was he sounded sincere, and Ian smiled back easily. He let Ned hug him, even wrapping an arm around to touch him on the shoulder.

Mickey’s fists clenched but he kept it together. When Ian took a step back, it was easier to relax a little.

“I was so surprised to get your message,” Ned was saying. “You haven’t returned one of my calls in nearly a year.”

“Sorry it’s been so long,” Ian said. When he ducked his chin, playing bashful, Mickey wanted to smack him upside the head and tell him to stop acting like an idiot, but Ned seemed to be buying it.

“Naughty,” Ned said, clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth. He turned to Mickey. “Who’s your friend? He’s got a real specific look, doesn’t he?”

Mickey arched an eyebrow but stayed quiet, letting Ian handle things for now.

“This is my roommate, Mickey,” Ian said. Mickey looked at him in surprise. He guessed Ian wasn’t lying, not really, but it still felt kind of shitty hearing him describe Mickey that way, although he wasn't sure what title he would've preferred. “We’re trying to figure out something about some girls we know from back home on the block who went missing.”

“Ah yes, the South Side. Delinquent youth, grinding poverty, noble dignity of the blue collar worker, all that jazz,” Ned said. He wrinkled his nose teasingly. “Finally got out, huh?”

Ian shrugged a shoulder. “More or less, I guess.” He brought his hand up so it rested on his hip, the stance drawing the lean lines of his body into harsh relief. Mickey wanted to scoff at the obvious move, but Ned seemed to be enjoying it. Even Mickey found himself following the curve of his waist up to the broad sweep of his shoulder. Mickey had to hand it to him, kid was good-looking. Clearly he knew how to work his angles.

“I ran into Steve the other day,” Ian said. “Well, Jimmy, I guess. He’s back from Michigan.”

Ned didn’t seem surprised by this information, or too distracted even. He continued eyeing Ian like he was playing chess and working ahead the next dozen moves it would take to get him naked. “I heard he was back in town. With your sister Felicia, right?”

Maybe it was a slip. Mickey tried to keep his face neutral. It was possibly a slip. It might not mean anything.

Ian went still. “My sister’s name is Fiona.”

Clapping a hand to his forehead, Ned laughed. “Of course! Fiona. You have so many brothers and sisters, it’s hard for an outsider to keep them straight.” His voice was so smooth, not oily or obviously untrustworthy. If Mickey wasn’t looking at him, watching the way he was undressing Ian with his eyes, it probably wouldn’t cross his mind to doubt his words.

That was probably why Mickey found himself hating Ned more than he’d ever hated anyone, even Svetlana that day two years ago, even his dad. The loathing was sudden and breathtaking in its specificity.

It was easy to be repulsed by Kash, because Kash was just a big dumb predator, like a bear or a bull shark. Dangerous, sure, but easy enough to out-maneuver if you were paying attention. Ned was like a snake. Looking at him, Mickey understood what Ian had meant, that Ned would never tell them more than he wanted them to know.

So being, Mickey decided to drop all pretense. He wasn’t an assassin, he was a bomb, and he didn’t have the patience to dance around this asshole all night. He stepped forward to draw Ned’s attention momentarily away from Ian.

“You ever meet two girls from the South Side before?” he demanded. “One was a white girl with dark hair named Harriet Bell, real name Harriet Harris, and the other one was Mexican and named Felicia Ramirez?”

Ned was still smirking, but it seemed like it was possibly a natural resting face rather than a specific expression. “You sound like a cop,” he said, sounding amused at the very idea. “Even though I have a feeling you don’t trust cops, do you?” He paused like he was finally considering what Mickey had actually said. “Didn’t those girls both get murdered recently?”

Mickey managed to keep his mouth from dropping open, but only just. Beside him, Ian was still able to keep his face impressively neutral, and Mickey was going to have to ask him one day how he did that.

“So, you have heard of them?” Ian asked levelly.

Ned shrugged one shoulder, the motion elegant. “It was on the news last night. Harriet Bell was found over near Ashland a few weeks ago, right? They said they just identified her this week based on a call-in tip.”

Fuck, Mickey thought. They should have flipped from Jeopardy to the fucking news every once in a blue moon, it seemed.

“How do you know about Felicia, then?” Mickey diverted.

“I didn’t,” Ned supplied easily. “I just assumed, when you said her name with that poor Harris girl’s…” He let the words trail off, bringing up a hand in a what-can-you-do gesture.

“You have anything to do with those girls getting killed?” Mickey barreled on.

“Excuse me?” Both of Ned’s shapely eyebrows raised. “Are you seriously accusing me of murder?”

“Well, since that’s not a no, I guess yeah, I am,” Mickey said flippantly, because fuck this guy and his slippery speech.

Instead of getting angry or incredulous, Ned tilted his head as he studied Mickey. “You’re a bit of a pit bull, aren’t you?” He looked speculatively at Ian. “I didn’t think you’d be into that, but I guess it’s been a while.”

Ian’s hand had dropped from his hip and he was watching Ned a little more warily now. “Yeah, I guess it has.”

In a flash, Ned’s face cleared and he swallowed broadly. “This got heavy quick.” He clapped his hands together in apparent inspiration. “Why don’t I get you boys a drink, and then maybe we can talk about those poor girls some more. Maybe some place more private?”

He let his hand rest on Ian’s shoulder, the touch light and ostensibly innocent, but it was all Mickey could do to keep from smacking it away.

“Sure. Okay,” Ian said. Ned turned to head to the bar and Mickey glared at Ian. As soon as Ned was gone, Ian’s face lost its carefully blank expression. “Just let me think, okay.” He was worried his lip against his teeth. His eyes were tight. “Shit.”

Mickey sat on the smooth leather couch against the wall and tugged at his hair, trying to untangle their conversation with Ned. Ian leaned so his hip rested against Mickey’s shoulder where he sat, and Mickey was too distracted to be jumpy about it, even if they were technically in public, even if that public was just this skeevy club.

Finally he couldn’t help it. “How is it that my uncle is in the freaking mafia and everyone in your life is still hands-down creepier than anyone I’ve ever met?” he burst out.

Ian tipped his head to the side, acknowledging this point. “Svetlana’s not so bad.” He seemed to anticipate Mickey’s grimace. “Well, most of the time.”

“You seriously dated that guy?” Mickey couldn’t see it.

Well, he could see it, unfortunately, he could already anticipate the very real anxiety nightmares he would probably have that night filled with images of a younger Ian being led into that creepy asshole’s lair like a skinny redheaded fly into a spider’s web, but it also felt off-balance. Ian was young and beautiful and strong and had no real reason to be fucking around with his sister’s boyfriend’s jailbait-chasing dad. It had been hard enough to understand what the appeal had been with Kash. Ian could have anybody. It didn’t even really make sense why he was settling for Mickey.

But then, Ned was rich. Maybe that had been it. He probably just bought Ian stuff.

Ian was looking down at him like he could follow his train of thought through the top of Mickey’s head.

“He wasn’t always like that,” Ian said, gesturing at where they could just see Ned’s back as he stood chatting at the bar. “When I first left the group home, I tried staying with my mom for a little bit, but she stole my money and ran away again after a week. I had nowhere to go, and Ned let me crash at his condo until I had enough money to start staying at motels. We weren’t really seeing each other anymore, but he didn’t make me do anything to pay him for rent. He just let me stay. He was nice to me.”

Ian smiled like he was remembering a pleasant memory, but the overall thrust of the story was so fucking grim Mickey didn’t know what to say. “I don’t know what I would’ve done without him, actually. I don’t know why he helped me, Mickey,” Ian said. He peered beseechingly down at Mickey’s face. “He didn’t have to. He just did.”

And Ian looked so desperate to believe in the good Samaritan-like qualities of Ned’s hospitality, even in hindsight, that Mickey didn’t have the heart to argue with him. Even if he did have a pretty good idea why Ned might be nice to Ian, no apparent strings attached, at least for a while, and it didn’t seem nearly so innocent to Mickey.

But the thought also gave Mickey pause. He believed Ned had taken advantage of a vulnerable kid, grooming Ian to feel like he owed him something in the future, but was Mickey any better? He didn’t want Ian to pay for rent, and he definitely didn’t want him hooking, but what position did that leave Ian in? And that uncomfortable thought made the night before, falling asleep wrapped up in each other’s arms after Ian had taken him apart until Mickey was gasping for it, begin to subtly change shades in Mickey’s mind, and he hated himself for thinking that way.

Ian put his hand on Mickey’s shoulder. “Hey, you okay down there?” He was frowning, and Mickey shook himself. He wasn’t like Ned. Nothing Ian and him had was like what Ned had been to Ian, Mickey thought, and he had to believe it or he would go crazy.

Which was the exact moment Ned came striding jovially back to join them. Mickey stood up, wanting to knock him to the ground and beat the shit out of him. Ned was balancing three prissy-looking cocktails in his hand. “Sorry, Ian, they were all out of Tanqueray,” he said, offering one of the glasses to Ian, who accepted.

It was on the tip of Mickey’s tongue to tell Ian not to drink it, but Ian seemed in no hurry, clasping the glass casually against his chest. Mickey took the third drink from Ned and set it immediately on the couch and turned his back on it, silently daring Ned to object.

Ned raised a sleek eyebrow. “So what’s all this about dead girls?” he asked slyly. Mickey was sure he was just messing with them now. Even a serial killer wouldn’t be that blatant. Mickey didn’t think, at least. Ned was still smirking at them both. “You boys playing detective or something? That’s pretty kinky.”

“It’s not…I know Hattie’s mom,” Ian said. He glanced at Mickey, who nodded, because he didn’t really know what else to do. Ned caught the brief exchange and it made his smirk deepen.

“Ian, why don’t you invite your boyfriend back home with us? We could have some fun, for old time’s sake. Maybe talk more about this horrible murder business.”

It was hard to say what, exactly, about that sentence lit the fuse to Mickey’s temper. Was it the “boyfriend” part? Was it the flippant, careless nod to the girls who had died, or the throwaway reference to the fact that this old asshole and Ian had a past? No, Mickey decided, his fist coming back as he wound up and brought his elbow behind his head, it was the expression on Ian’s face that did it, the embarrassed, unsure twist to his eyes and mouth. It had Mickey swinging before he’d even consciously decided to move.

His fist connected with Ned’s cheek, the impact shooting painfully up Mickey’s arm, but he was already drawing back to throw an uppercut before Ned crumpled completely to the dirty club floor. Mickey reared back to deliver a kick to his ribs, Ned grunting painfully (fucker didn’t have much to say when someone was whaling on him, Mickey noted in grim satisfaction), then knelt down so he could put his mouth beside Ned’s ear. Whether or not Ned was actually responsible for the murders of Harriet and Felicia, and for terrorizing Ian, Mickey still felt a thrill seeing him crumpled on the ground, if for no other reason than he was a slimy creep.

“You stay the fuck away from Ian or I will fucking end you, I swear to god,” Mickey said softly into Ned’s ear. “You still think you’re fucking slick, you come around him again and we’ll figure out how fucking slick you really are, you piece of shit.”

By now the bouncers were making their way over and Mickey reached to grab for Ian’s elbow, who was watching Ned in frozen shock as the older man curled up on the floor.

“Move your ass,” Mickey barked, dragging Ian away so they could dart through the crowd for the back exit of the club he’d been staring at earlier. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

Ian looked like he wanted to argue, but for once he kept his mouth shut, and followed Mickey out into the dark alleyway behind the club.

 

****

 

As they ran from the club, darting up and down alleyways, Ian’s heart slamming against his ribs and his feet pounding on the pavement, he caught Mickey laughing from the corner of his eye and it almost made him stumble. Mickey looked like he was having a goddamn riot over there.

He wanted to strangle him, but first ask him why in the hell he thought it was a good idea to deck the fucking guy they were trying to get information from.

“What the hell, Mickey?” he huffed, beginning to slow down as they rounded a corner, still expecting to hear the sounds of the bouncers pounding feet behind them but hearing nothing but their own panting breaths.

Mickey fell against the brick of the wall, swiping at Ian’s shoulder. Ian shook his head in disbelief.

“Someone should’ve beat the shit out of that guy years ago,” Mickey said with a shrug.

Ian frowned. “You think he’s doing this?” he couldn’t help but ask. He was having trouble deciding if the Ned he’d just talked to in the club was different than he remembered, or if Ian was different and was seeing Ned clearly for the first time.

“If I was a betting man, I’d say he was guilty as shit,” Mickey said. He frowned thoughtfully. “Almost too goddamn guilty. I think he might’ve just been messing with us, actually.”

“Really?” Ian asked in surprise. He figured Mickey would be the first to point both fingers at Ned. “You think?”

Mickey cracked a grin. “I don’t fucking know, man. I’m just some idiot kid.” He still seemed high on adrenaline, playful and teasing. Ian was still uneasy from their encounter with Ned, but he felt himself drawn to Mickey anyway.

He shoved Mickey back against the brick wall. “God, you fucking asshole, I can’t believe you,” he said. He shoved at Mickey again, who laughed and pushed back. The unreality of the evening was making the alleyway feel like its own little bubble, until they were both play-struggling against one another, breathing heavily into the other’s shoulder.

After a minute Mickey pulled back and got out his phone to call Colin, staring at Ian the whole time. When the Oldsmobile pulled into the alley, Ian couldn’t tear his eyes away from Mickey, the way his chest rose and fell as he panted, the flush to his cheeks. Ian was suddenly so turned on he could barely think. It felt like the release of surviving some kind of attack, the flush of survival rushing straight the his cock.

Colin stopped and Ian slid into the backseat. He was surprised when Mickey joined him, leaving Colin alone up front. He opened his mouth to ask, but Mickey’s hand sliding over his knee surprised him into silence. Holding his gaze, Mickey squeezed his leg just above his knee. It was a simple touch, not nearly sexy, but it sent a pang of startled, focused heat straight to the backs of Ian's knees and the insides of his elbows and his lower back and, most importantly, his cock, and it was all he could do not to groan.

Mickey’s hand on his leg was the only point of contact for the whole ride home. He was distantly aware of Colin and Mickey’s chatter, Mickey telling Colin the gist of their conversation with Ned, but Ian was too focused on the feel of his erection pressing painfully against his zipper, his hot awareness of every angle of Mickey’s body beside his in the car, to pay any real attention.

As soon as Colin dropped them off and they stumbled up the walk to the vestibule, Ian took one glance along the street to make sure it was empty and threw Mickey back against the door, attacking his mouth like he’d been waiting to do for the last half hour.

They stumbled upstairs, pausing to fumble with the keys to the vestibule door, then the apartment door, kissing each other like they were breathing the other in. Ian was pulling his shirt over his head and yanking at Mickey’s before he had time to think. He backed them into the bedroom and pulled away to take off his jeans and underwear, impatient to be naked, to press his body to Mickey’s, to forget about Ned and anyone else he’d ever been with before now.

Mickey seemed mesmerized by the sight of Ian’s cock rising against his bare belly and Mickey stepped forward, wrapping a tentative hand around it, his grip tightening slowly until Ian was groaning. They caught each other’s eyes and stared, a silent question passing between them.

“You want to do this?” Ian asked. His voice sounded wrecked. He looked down at Mickey’s obvious erection through his boxers, then back at his own cock leaking precome against his abs. “You want to fuck?”

Mickey didn’t answer, but he looked down at his boxers too and then yanked them off in one hurried motion, standing fully naked in front of Ian for the first time. He shifted from foot to foot awkwardly, and Ian rushed to soothe what he thought might be the source of Mickey’s discomfort.

“You can fuck me,” Ian said, pressing kisses across Mickey’s jaw.

He could feel Mickey’s mouth turn down into a frown as he swooped back up to kiss him again. “You don’t want—”

“No, of course I want,” Ian murmured. He got distracted kissing behind Mickey’s ear in a way that made him squirm, then dragging his teeth lightly over his jaw. “It’s just, I know it can be kind of, I don’t know. Intimidating, bottoming for the first time.” He pulled back, dropping a kiss on Mickey’s nose, his brow bone. He couldn't stop touching his mouth to Mickey’s skin. “It freaked me the hell out, that’s for sure. So you can fuck me.”

Mickey’s eyes were closed and his mouth was hanging slightly open, quietly letting Ian kiss him all over his face and neck as he babbled, but he seemed to startle at Ian’s latest pronouncement, his eyes blinking open like an owl’s.

“You’d let me…” Mickey couldn’t seem to find the words.

“Sure,” Ian said, grinning. He drew the tips of his fingers up and down Mickey’s sides, getting lost in the sensation. “I mean, I’m used to it by now.”

Something in Mickey’s face seemed to shift. “Okay,” he said, but he sounded slightly less dazed by pleasure and more uncertain. He almost seemed disappointed, but Ian thought he must be misunderstanding his expression.

Ian kissed him again, letting himself sweep his tongue through Mickey’s mouth, drawing in the taste of him. “It’s okay,” he tried to assure him, “it’s fine, I don’t mind.”

And he didn’t, not really. Sure, Ian preferred to top, but in his experience, most closeted guys tended to freak out at the thought of being dominated, unless it was a specific kink. Maybe he shouldn’t be lumping Mickey in with his tricks, but he was hard and aching and Mickey smelled so great, he just wanted to make him feel good, make him feel safe and comfortable. And for once, the thought of being fucked didn’t feel like a chore; if it was Mickey, he found himself strangely excited just by the thought of it.

“This is happening,” Ian muttered against Mickey’s lips, “I can’t believe this is finally happening, we’re actually going to fuck—” He cut himself off, tangling his hands in Mickey’s hair to tilt his head so he could bite and lick his way down his throat to his collarbone. “Oh my god, you taste so good, Mick, jesus.” He knew he was jabbering, but he couldn’t control it. Maybe this was what Mickey had felt like when Ian was rimming him, hot and shaky and out of control.

He managed to wrench himself away to twist and grab a condom and lube from his backpack, tossing both beside them. Mickey’s eyes darted to stare at them, and Ian took the opportunity to flop onto his back, pulling Mickey down to lay on top of him between his spread legs.

Mickey gasped, his body going stiff even as he kissed Ian back eagerly, his tongue sweeping along the roof of his mouth. It made Ian moan, louder than he usually ever was in bed, but then, this was nothing like anything he’d done before. Mickey was nothing like anyone he’d ever been with before.

On top of him, he felt Mickey shaking, his hands unsteady as they came down to cup Ian’s face. He could feel Mickey’s cock hard against his hip but he still felt the compulsive need to check in, to make sure they were still together.

“Is this okay?” he drew back another inch or two, studying Mickey’s face, unable to stop himself from kissing his nose, the corner of his mouth, as he waited for confirmation.

Mickey nodded shakily. “Yeah. I mean, yes. Okay.” He still looked wide-eyed, though, and it gave Ian pause for a second, until he remembered his decision from weeks ago, to trust Mickey to know what he wanted until he said otherwise.

His own raging hard on was making it hard to pull back too much anyway, so he leaned in again, making himself murmur, “Just tell me if you want to stop and we’ll stop,” before swooping in to capture Mickey’s mouth again.

When he needed more than the feel of Mickey thrusting roughly against the joint of his hip, Ian reached behind him and grabbed the lube, disrupting their kiss so he could pull a knee up to his chest. Mickey leaned back, his eyes still wide and dilated, seemingly content to watch Ian take care of himself.

Ian wasn’t really good at prepping himself, especially when he was on his back, but he didn’t want to lose his view of Mickey. Who seemed to be avoiding blinking so he wouldn’t miss a second of Ian lubing up his fingers and pressing one eagerly inside himself. He couldn’t help but let out a little groan when Mickey licked his lips.

Mickey rested his hands somewhat hesitantly on Ian’s knees as he watched. Ian rushed the prep, feeling anxious to get Mickey inside him, to fill him up. When he was up to three fingers, his back arching at the stretch, he pulled his hand away and reached for the condom.

“I’m ready,” he muttered. He pulled at Mickey’s shoulders. “Get the condom, I’m ready.” He let his eyes drift close.

Above him, Mickey resisted falling completely against Ian’s body again. “Who are you thinking about?”

Ian frowned with his eyes still closed. “Who am I thinking of?” he repeated numbly, trying to pull Mickey against him still.

“When you close your eyes like that,” Mickey insisted, his voice tight, “who are you thinking of?”

Ian opened his eyes and looked up at him, taking in Mickey’s expression, the tense set of his mouth.

“I’m not thinking of any…Mick,” Ian said, trying to speak like a normal human, but his brain was mush and he was confused, his body still hot and aching. He reached out for Mickey, wrapping his a hand around the back of Mickey’s neck. “Mick, are you—”

Mickey jerked completely away. He was stuttering now. “I can’t—I’m sorry, shit, Ian, I’m sorry.”

Ian sat up, trying to get his foggy sex-stupid brain to work. “It’s okay, Mick—”

“No, it’s not okay, fuck,” Mickey said. He eyes were still glued to Ian, but even as he reached a hand out to touch again like he couldn’t quite help himself, he bit his lip and curled his hand into a fist. He looked furious at himself. “Fuck.”

Willing his incredibly obvious boner to be cool for a second, Ian scooted a little closer so he could touch Mickey’s shoulder. “Hey, it’s not a big deal.” Mickey gave him a look, and Ian couldn’t help but huff out a laugh. “Okay, so maybe I might be on the cusp of some serious blue balls. But seriously, it’s okay.”

But Mickey still looked miserable. Ian wanted to cuddle him, to calm him down. Before he had the chance Mickey turned away completely.

“Fuck, I’m pathetic,” he said bitterly, mostly to himself. “I can’t even have sex like a normal person.”

Ian was starting to feel cold. “Mickey, it’s okay—”

Mickey laughed, the sound a grim parody of any sort of comedy. “Good thing you don’t have to sit around on your ass waiting for me, I guess. At least you can still go out and get laid for work.”

The words hit Ian like a kick to the chest. He actually physically recoiled, pushing back on the bed so he was crouched on the heels of his feet. His heart was pounding hard again, but for a different reason.

Mickey seemed to realize what he’d said only after the words settled into the air. He cringed. “Jesus, Ian, I didn’t—”

Ian shook his head numbly. He couldn’t really speak right away. He didn’t know why his mouth was so dry.

Maybe because that was the most casual Mickey had ever been about his job. He supposed it was his own fault, for not telling Mickey that he wasn’t really working anymore. For not explaining more explicitly that the sex he had with tricks was nothing like the things they’d done, the things he wanted to do with Mickey. For assuming that Mickey forgot that he was a whore when they were here together, in the apartment, just the two of them.

Ian got up on wooden legs and went immediately for his clothes, feeling exposed and vulnerable in a way he never had when he’d been mostly naked with Mickey before.

“Ian, just wait,” Mickey protested, getting up on his knees on the mattress. “I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just, I was worried…I don’t want to disappoint…” He seemed like he wanted to smack himself over the head to get the right words out, and Ian kind of hoped he could explain himself better too. “You’ve been with so many people, I just don’t understand why you’d want to be with me.” Mickey’s voice was soft and he was staring at his hands in his lap, and normally Ian would’ve been charmed by Mickey’s vulnerability, but right now he was too preoccupied with the first part of that last sentence.

It was like ice-cold water over his shoulders. At least his boner was done for now, which he guessed was its own silver lining

You’ve been with so many people. You’ve been with so many people.

Ian knew he was probably being a pussy for letting the words affect him so much. It wasn’t like they were untrue. Maybe it was just hearing them from Mickey’s mouth.

He pulled his shirt over his head. “Don’t worry about it,” he heard himself saying, his voice sounding weird and off-key in his own ears, “you’re right. This isn’t that big a deal to me. I mean, hooker, you know?” He gestured feebly at his own chest.

Mickey looked up at him, and he was frowning now, looking confused. “Dude, what….”

“It’s just a fuck to me, right?” Ian didn’t know why he couldn’t stop talking, but then, his mouth always had a tendency to run when he was upset. “Don’t worry about me. You’re the one…you shouldn’t have to do anything you don’t want, man.”

“But I do want—”

“Seriously, it’s okay.” Ian hated the way he sounded, so he made himself clamp his jaw shut, stemming any further words for the moment.

You’ve been with so many people. You’ve been with so many people.

Which made Mickey’s earlier point so ironic, because really, why would anyone want to be with Ian? More specifically, why would someone like Mickey want be with someone like Ian? Mickey’s first time shouldn’t be with a hooker, Ian found himself thinking dully. What had he been thinking?

He was so caught in his own thoughts, he barely noticed Mickey coming closer to him. He looked concerned.

“Ian, are you okay?” Mickey asked. He touched Ian’s elbow hesitantly.

Ian swallowed once, twice, trying to get enough moisture in his mouth to speak. “I’m fine,” he said. He stepped away so Mickey’s hand dropped from Ian’s arm. He grabbed his backpack and left for the living room. The apartment felt stifling and small. He needed to escape.

As he bent over to shove his shoes on his feet, Mickey followed, pulling his jeans back on clumsily as he went. He saw Ian grab his coat and went still. “Where the fuck are you going, man?”

“Work,” Ian lied. He was probably just going to go to the now-familiar diner near North Avenue to sit and feel sorry for himself, but he couldn’t tell Mickey that. Not after tonight. “I can still make some money tonight if I hustle. Maybe I can throw some cash your way for rent finally.”

Mickey leaned back against on the couch like he’d been hit. He looked devastated.

Ian hated that he was responsible for that expression. But he also made himself straighten his shoulders. It was better this way, for both of them. Neither of them should forget who Ian really was.

“Would you at least,” Mickey said, stopping to swallow, his voice rusty-sounding, “please, just let me call Colin to give you a ride?”

Ian heaved out a sigh. Because as much as he might want to storm out by himself and be alone for once, he knew it wasn’t safe. He couldn’t even have that one last dignity.

“Okay,” he said. He didn’t look at Mickey as he headed for the door. “Tell Colin I’ll be waiting outside.”

 

****

 

The last thing Mickey wanted to do was go out to join his uncle for a job later that night.

He’d waited until Colin had pulled up outside, watching from his vantage point at the front window of his apartment as Ian sat huddled and waiting on the curb outside, his hand clutched around the key to the apartment Mickey had made him take with him. Colin had been especially surprised over the phone that Mickey wanted him to turn around and come back to the apartment after he’d essentially just dropped them off, but Colin didn’t argue too much when he heard Mickey’s voice.

“Colin, just do this for me, man,” Mickey said lowly. “I need you to make sure he’s safe.”

“Is everything okay?” Colin asked once. “Mick?”

“Can you hurry?” Mick asked instead of answering. “I don’t want him running off on his own.”

After Mickey watched Ian get into Colin’s car, he stepped back from the window, briefly relieved. Then, he was hit with the overwhelming urge to curl up in a ball on his couch and wait for the sweet relief of death to take him. He felt like king of the assholes.

Instead, his phone rang and he rushed to answer it, thinking it was Ian.

His uncle’s voice greeted him instead. “Mick? I need you tonight. We got a runner.”

Mickey was out the door as soon as he had the address written down and could pull his shirt on and could tie his shoes halfway. A runner meant trouble. A runner meant his uncle needed him now, no matter what kind of fucked up shit he’d managed to kick up in his personal life.

It felt good to run nearly all the way to spot, the spot being a beat-up old chocolate factory near the corner of Western Avenue and Milwaukee, pushing his body to go faster until nearly all his muscles were trembling. The building was just on the edge of Wicker Park and an ideal place to hide illegal activity in plain sight. As he ran, he tried to figure out when the night had gone so completely off the rails.

Weirdly enough, he didn’t think it was Ian’s creepy old asshole of an ex-boyfriend’s fault. Well, not completely.

This time, it had been Mickey, all Mickey, his stupid, messed-up head and he’s goddamn mouth. He had a feeling he only understood a fraction of how much he'd managed to hurt Ian, and the uncertainty almost made it worse. He’d been too caught up in his own panic to consider what he was saying, that his words could hurt Ian just as much as his own panic could hurt himself.

As his feet hit the pavement, he kept seeing Ian’s face in his mind, appearing in rhythm with his wheezing breaths. He saw the way it had frozen, then gone blank, Ian hurriedly standing up from the mattress to pull on his clothes as fast as he could.

Ian was falling apart, they'd just come from dealing with fucking Ned and his fucking attempts at mind games and subterfuge, and Ian’d still managed to be so sweet, offering to do whatever he could think of to put Mickey at ease, to make him comfortable. And all Mickey had done was freak out, throw his job in his face and practically chase him out of the apartment. Well, chase was probably a dramatic way to describe it, but he sure as hell hadn’t done all he could to make him stay, instead letting him run off with Colin to go do god knew what. Fuck.

Outside the old chocolate factory, Ronnie’s guy Paulie was waiting for Mickey at the front door, frowning the same second-parent frown as Owen from earlier.

“You took your goddamn time,” Paulie said as he held the door open.

“Go fuck yourself,” Mickey said shortly. He didn’t have time for Paulie’s bullshit. He didn’t have time for anyone’s bullshit. He should be out begging Ian to come home while he apologized for freaking out like some bitch at the thought of trying to measure up with all the guys Ian had been with before.

Inside, Ronnie was standing beside a man who was tied to a chair. The guy looked slightly familiar in the way all desperate people looking similar, but Mickey didn’t dwell on it. Two more of Ronnie’s guys, Owen and another thick, beefy man Mickey didn’t recognize, were looming over the guy tied to the chair while Ronnie asked questions.

This wasn't Mickey's first time with a runner, but it was always a weird, mysterious set up. A runner meant someone had done some serious shit and was trying to skip town. Ronnie rarely explained the transgressions the men (and they were always men) were guilty of, so Mickey just helped him knock them around until they told Ronnie what he wanted to know. Sometimes it was about money. Other times it seemed to be about something more, something almost moral in nature, but Mickey stopped short of thinking of his uncle as some kind of Ukrainian batman a long time ago. Mickey just assumed it was money, unless he was told otherwise, and he rarely was. It made things easier.

The guy in the chair wasn’t bruised too badly. It looked like they’d just gotten started. A restless, miserable energy was boiling in Mickey’s chest and it pricked at the apparent opportunity for violence. He moved so he was standing beside his uncle.

“Mickey,” Ronnie said. His voice was even. “Thanks for coming out. Sorry it’s so late.”

Mickey shrugged. “I wasn’t busy,” he said. The mute truth of the words made his stomach clench.

Ronnie glanced at him. “Everything okay with you?”

“I’m fucking fine,” Mickey snapped. “What do we got?”

Ronnie looked at him for a beat too long, then turned back to the guy in the chair. “We need a location. He knows what for.”

The guy hocked a loogie onto the cement floor. “Man, I ain’t telling you shit.”

From his place beside the chair, Owen drew back and socked the guy in the jaw. It was a square hit, Mickey could tell that much, but it was measured. The guy’s head snapped back but his eyes were still clear when he blinked them open. Mickey felt irritated at Owen’s restraint.

“You’re only hurting yourself here, Dale,” Ronnie said.

Dale the Runner made a disbelieving nose. “I tell you where, my life ain’t worth shit either.”

“That’s not my problem,” Ronnie said, nodding at Owen. Owen stepped forward and hit Dale again, the hit a smooth uppercut this time that sent Dale’s head snapping back. He seemed slightly more dazed as he steadied his head again, but not enough, not nearly enough, Mickey wanted to see the guy bleed.

His right fist still ached from kicking Ned’s ass earlier, but his fingers were tingling again at the thought of hitting someone again.

Ronnie was shaking his head. “Dale, I got all night. You want to play this game til you can’t speak anymore, be my guest. I have nowhere to be.”

“Fuck you,” Dale sneered.

Before Owen could step forward again, Mickey touched his uncle’s arm. “Ronnie, I can do it.”

Ronnie shrugged. “Knock yourself out,” he said. Usually Mickey didn’t need to bring the heat with a runner, that’s why Ronnie paid big guys like Owen and Paulie to do the job instead, but just because he didn’t usually didn’t mean he’d forgotten how. When he’d first moved in with his uncle, wet work like this, beating the hell out of some guy he didn’t know, had been the only way he could keep his anger under control.

He hadn’t felt like this in a long time, over a year probably, this insistent need to hurt, to smash, to make someone feel as shitty as he did. Mostly because he hadn’t felt shitty like this since he’d moved out of his dad’s house.

Dale cackled out a laugh as Mickey approached, biting out some taunt about his height, but Mickey didn't hear him. Shit, he barely saw him, tunnel vision making everything go gray.

Using the leverage from his higher position standing, Mickey sank his fist into Dale’s cheek with all of his weight. And then he drew his fist back and hit him again, even harder this time. He barely even heard his uncle calling out for him to cool it.

He didn't see Dale at all anymore as he hit him again, and again, and again. He saw Felicia Ramirez’s desperate brothers, he saw Ian’s pale face as they found the hands on the doorstep, he saw Lip looking angry and helpless as he tried to help his brother, he saw Kash’s fiery, possessive eyes, he saw Ned’s smug face from earlier.

But this was different than Ned, different than hitting some guy to send a message, this felt like some kind of holy retribution. It felt like beating the hell out of the very concept of injustice. Maybe he was a little overheated and emotional, too, his mind hazily allowed.

He felt hands pulling him back but he shook them off violently, struggling to get back to Dale’s drooping form in the chair. He hit once again, and this time the force sent Dale rocketing over onto his side, the chair hitting the cement floor with a loud, echoing clatter.

“Mickey, stop.” His uncle’s voice was a remote hum at first. Mickey kicked the guy in front of him in the stomach, relishing the solid thud of his boot against his solar plexus, the sound the guy made as he writhed on the ground.

A solid, gripping hand wrapped around his upper bicep and threw him back.

Mickey stumbled onto his ass, panting, looking up in bewilderment as he remembered, finally, where he was. Paulie and Owen and the third guy Mickey didn’t know were circled around him in shock.

His uncle was peering down at him too. The presence of an actual, honest-to-god expression of surprise on his uncle’s face was enough to shock him back to reality.

“Kid, what in the hell is going on with you?” his uncle asked steadily.

Mickey couldn’t answer. Now that he was no longer moving, his hand was throbbing like a living thing. He probably broke it on the runner’s skull.

Ronnie looked at the crumpled shape of the guy on the floor. Mickey wondered in dawning horror if he’d killed him. Just then Dale moaned brokenly and Mickey sagged a little in relief.

“Clean that up,” Ronnie told Owen.

Owen nodded easily, just another day at the office, and went with the two other men to see to the moaning mess of a man on the floor.

Ronnie dragged Mickey up and out of the warehouse, pulling him until they stood in the shadows near a Dumpster. When Ronnie released him, Mickey stumbled, holding himself up with a hand on the cold brick wall beside him.

“Kiddo,” Ronnie said after a while. His default blank face had restored itself, and for once Mickey was grateful for his uncle’s nearly unshakeable demeanor, because right now Mickey felt like his face must show every inch that he was sliding into pieces.

“I think I fucked things up with Ian,” Mickey said softly.

Ronnie tilted his head back and made a sound in the back of his throat. It sounded like Ronnie wanted to be somewhere, anywhere, maybe a nice beach on a faraway remote island, than standing here listening to Mickey’s relationship problems. Mickey had a feeling that as far as Ronnie was concerned, none of his nieces and nephews had romantic or sexual thoughts about anyone.

Nevertheless, like a soldier gearing up for battle, Ronnie exhaled and squared his shoulders. “Why do you think you fucked things up with Ian?” he asked gamely.

“He deserves better than me,” Mickey said. While it wasn’t what had happened tonight, Mickey realized it was at the crux of everything anyway. Besides, he didn’t have to heart to traumatize his uncle by saying, “I freaked out when we were about to have sex,” so this worked well for avoiding that, too.

“Why would you say that?” Ronnie asked. He sounded genuinely puzzled.

“Because Ian could have anyone he wanted,” Mickey said. “And I’m completely fucked up. I can’t even…everything that happened with my dad, I think.” This was the most he had every talked to his uncle about what had happened. “It fucked me up. It really fucked me up, like for real.”

Ronnie didn’t respond right away. He let Mickey wipe wrathfully at his face, which felt wet, goddamnit. This night couldn’t get any more fucking humiliating, Mickey was almost sure of that.

“What makes you think Ian doesn’t have just as many problems as you do, kid?” Ronnie asked after the pause stretched past the second minute mark. At least he wasn’t trying to argue with Mickey that he wasn’t as fucked up as he thought. Because he was, Mickey knew he was. Rearing back in panic when the hottest, sweetest guy you’d ever met was asking you to fuck him was not, objectively, a normal human reaction to said stimuli.

“I mean, Ian’s got problems,” Mickey said, “but he’s not fucking emotionally crippled like me.”

“That’s not,” Ronnie said, pausing. “Okay, how about you just…” He made that same pained hissing sound in the back of his throat. “Tell me. Tell me what happened.” He held up a hand. “In general terms, I’m begging you.”

Please don’t make us talk about sex, his uncle’s eyes silently pleaded.

Mickey sagged against the wall. He didn’t know how to explain the magnitude of the guilt in his chest. “I think I hurt his feelings,” he said, then winced. Jesus. “I mean, I know I did. And then he stormed off to go to work.” At Ronnie’s head tilt, Mickey nodded. “Yeah, Colin drove him. He’s not alone, or at least Colin’s nearby.”

Ronnie looked up at the starless night sky. “Man, but that kid must have a death wish.”

Mickey automatically felt his mouth turn down. “He’s not fucking stupid, you know, he’s just pissed off right now,” he said defensively. “There’s all kind of crazy shit going on with him that's not his fault. He’s upset.”

“And so are you?” Ronnie prodded.

Mickey couldn’t really do anything else in response but nod. Ronnie watched him for a second, then sighed. He sounded frustrated.

“Look. Mickey. If you got problems at home, you deal with them,” Ronnie said sternly. “You don’t come to work and wallop some guy until he can’t even tell me where he hid nearly ten grand he owes his wife to cover his gambling debts, Mickey, I swear to god.” He shook his head slowly, eyes closed, Ronnie’s version of aggravated frowning.

And there was the extra humiliation Mickey had thought wasn’t even humanly possible to pile on to the night. He’d managed to fuck up the job for his uncle. Shit, he was on a goddamn role, wasn’t he, Mickey thought morosely.

Ronnie caught his miserable expression and came to lean against the wall beside him.

“Goddamn teenagers,” he said out of nowhere. “You think all these problems are insurmountable, like there’s some kind of point of no return where you can’t fix things anymore.” He pierced Mickey with a look. It was the most worked up Mickey had seen his uncle in a while. “You know who can’t fix anything anymore? Those poor dead girls you and Ian are so obsessed with lately. There’s nothing they can do, nothing their families can do. It’s over. That’s when you can’t fix anything anymore, when you’re dead.”

That seemed to be all Ronnie had allotted for his motivational speaking for the night. Mickey thought maybe he could connect the dots, later, when he wasn’t so tired and his hands weren’t throbbing and all he wanted to do was go home and sleep for the rest of his life.

“Get out of here,” Ronnie said. “I’m giving you the next few days off to get your head on straight.” He gestured behind him at the warehouse. “That shit in there can’t happen again.” His eyes softened infinitesimally. “I know you’re scared, Mick. But Ian is too. You need to trust him more, pal. You’re all he’s got.”

Ronnie turned and went back inside the warehouse without saying goodbye, which Mickey was quietly grateful for. He thought they’d reached their emotional bonding ceiling about fifteen minutes ago.

Mickey’s phone chirped. It was Colin: Ian’s back at the apartment.

The relief that swept through him was almost narcotic in its soothing bliss. Mickey didn’t run all the way back to the apartment, but he felt lighter. Ian was at home, at least. As long as Ian was there, they could fix whatever the hell had gone wrong before, or at least try and piece it together again. Mickey had to believe that.

He was halfway there when his phone went off and he answered before the second ring even had a chance to chime. “Ian?” he said into the phone. “Ian, I’m coming home now.” He pulled away to check the caller ID, and that's when he saw it was a blocked number, not Ian's number at all. He put the phone cautiously back to his ear.

On the other end of the line, there was a low humming, like a sound that came from deep in a person’s chest.

“Who the fuck is this?” Mickey demanded. He didn’t have fucking time for prank calls right now. He waited at an empty crosswalk for a car to turn left before hurrying across the street.

The voice on the other end of the line hummed once more, the sound even deeper, almost like a growl. “Ian,” the voice said. It was so low it was almost distorted.

Mickey was only frightened for a brief second. He was only blocks from the apartment now. His fright morphed into fury.

“I don’t know who you are, but if I ever find out, I’ll kill you,” Mickey bit out into the phone. Before the asshole on the other end could answer, he flipped his phone shut. He felt numb, surprised that he wasn’t more shaken, but not surprised enough to let himself panic like he knew he should be doing.

He wondered if this was how Ian felt, so numb to the horror that he had trouble working up the proper shock response anymore. He was distracted from this depressing thought when up ahead, he saw the familiar shape and size of his apartment building looming.

He was about to buzz for Ian to let him up when, in a stroke of what he considered almost unprecedented luck, one of his neighbors came up behind him. It was an old lady with bluish hair. Mickey thought she lived in D2.

“Evening,” she said calmly.

“How’s it going,” Mickey said back, breathing out in relief when she let him into the building without question.

The door to his apartment was closed but unlocked. He tried to keep thoughts of the creepy fucking phone call out of his head. Instead, he decided they really needed to get another key copied. He also realized that Ian must have really not wanted to face him if he’d taken the risk of leaving the apartment door unlocked.

Inside, he was relieved yet again when he saw Ian’s shoes by the door, but nobody sleeping on the couch. He stepped into the darkened bedroom and saw Ian curled up in his usual place on the mattress instead. Mickey didn't stop to consider that maybe he should bite the bullet and sleep on the couch himself.

Instead, he kicked off his shoes as quietly as he could, shoving down his jeans and crawling into bed beside Ian with his boxers and T-shirt on. He laid down carefully on his back, trying not to shake the mattress too much. Ian didn’t stir.

“I’m sorry,” Mickey said up to the ceiling. He knew it was a piss poor apology, but at least he knew he meant it more than anything.

Ian didn’t answer. His eyes were closed where he lay curled on his side of the mattress facing Mickey. Mickey wondered if he was asleep, or if he was just going to ignore Mickey for now. Just when Mickey was ready to give up and turn over on his side and try to fall asleep himself, he heard a rustle. He looked down and saw Ian reaching for Mickey’s hand. Mickey rushed to meet him, their fingers tangling together. Ian opened his eyes and looked at Mickey and they rested there quietly for a moment.

“Did you get any work tonight?” Mickey asked after a while. His casual tone sounded forced, but he didn’t want to go to sleep without talking at least a little.

“No,” Ian said dully.

Mickey tried not to sound too surprised. “No? Why not?”

“Because I’m a punk,” he said obscurely. “And I was too upset. So I just sat in that diner over by Humboldt Park for a few hours and then had Colin drive me home. I definitely owe him for gas money now, I don’t care if your uncle covers it.”

Mickey wanted to tell him that he was sorry for making him upset. He wanted to explain why he’d freaked out earlier, why even though he wanted to fuck, he’d still managed to choke at zero hour, but he didn’t even know how to explain it to himself yet. So he decided to go for the more urgent information.

“I got a call tonight,” he said softly. “I think it was from them.”

“Them?”

“Whoever’s been stalking you.” Mickey gestured weakly with his free hand. “The fucking killer or whatever.”

A corner of Ian’s mouth quirked. “I hope that’s the serial killer name that catches on with the newspapers.” Then even his small smile dropped. “What did he want?”

Mickey sighed. “I think he just wanted to mess with me. Or maybe it was a telemarketer with a fucked up sense of humor, I don’t know. But I think it was probably the killer.”

He felt Ian squeeze his hand slightly. “Shit, Mickey,” Ian said.

“I know.”

They lapsed into silence. Mickey knew they needed to talk, that he needed to get to the bottom of what had happened earlier that night, why Mickey had panicked and Ian had run away. But he was tired. Ian’s eyes had already drooped shut again. Even though they were only touching where their palms clasped together, Mickey felt his muscles relax.

For now, he let himself drift off, holding Ian’s hand even in his dreams.

Chapter Text

When Ian woke up, he was curled around Mickey like a jetpack. He had only a hazy memory of shifting to wrap himself around Mickey during the night, but it was cold in Mickey’s apartment, he thought defensively, and barely-awake Ian was obviously bad at remembering that it was probably inappropriate to try and spoon when things were weird between them now.

Or at least, they probably would be weird. Maybe. In the morning light, he couldn't help by wonder if he’d managed to fuck everything up with his stupid hotheaded stubborn temper, like always.

He was still holding Mickey’s hand, fingers wrapped tightly around the smaller fingers and palm, holding it tight to Mickey’s sternum where he spooned him. He noted the swollen, bloodied knuckles on Mickey’s hand. He wondered what the fuck happened after Ian left the night before. He tried to enjoy being wrapped around Mickey for as long as he could while Mickey slept on.

However, there was also the possibility that Ian was bad at predicting things like this, because when Mickey finally began to stir ten minutes later, he twisted around until he was facing Ian but didn’t shake off Ian's arms or try to bring his feet from where they were intertwined with Ian’s beneath the sheets. He took Ian’s hand in his again, laying it on the sheets in between them so it looked like they were about to arm-wrestle.

“Morning,” Ian said carefully, his voice low from sleep.

Mickey frowned, his eyebrows coming together, mouth turned down. His hair was a mess and one side of his face had imprinted lines from the seam of the pillow case. Ian thought it was unfair that Mickey could look so cute in the morning, when Ian was sure he looked like death. He felt like death, at least.

Ian tapped a finger gently on one of Mickey’s abused knuckles. “What happened here?” he asked.

Mickey looked away. “Some asshole’s face ran into my fist a couple of times.” He didn’t volunteer anything more, and Ian let it drop. The silence stretched out uncomfortably.

Generally, babbling helplessly in the face of unpleasant situations was more or less Ian’s wheelhouse. This morning was no exception, and he found himself blurting before he could reconsider, “Can I make a case for a fight time-out?”

Mickey raised an eyebrow, still staring at the knuckles on Ian’s hands. “The fuck is a fight time-out?”

“Well, since last night was kind of a shit show,” Ian said hurriedly, “and I know it was all my fault—”

Mickey seemed to take issue with that. “How the fuck was it your fa—”

“—and we should definitely talk at some point, eventually.” He gave Mickey a pleading look, going for broke. “But could we like, call a T-O on the play just until after breakfast and then tackle it then? I’m starving, and you make good French toast.”

Looking down at where his thumb was absently tapping against the back of Ian’s hand, Mickey asked, “How long do these time-outs usually last?”

Forever, Ian thought to himself. “A few hours?” he said hopefully instead.

“You’re such a girl,” Mickey muttered.

“That’s an offensive stereotype,” Ian said sweetly.

Mickey glowered a little, then he sighed. “Fine.” He made a move like he was about to get out of bed. “French toast, you said?”

But as Mickey began to roll over, a spark of panic ran through Ian that he didn’t really understand, so he didn’t try. He just let himself reach out and pull Mickey back down by his shoulders so he could kiss him. Both of their mouths tasted stale, and Mickey seemed a little frozen at first, but Ian couldn’t help pressing closer, tangling his tongue with Mickey’s until they were both arching into one another. Ian let himself fall into the kiss, and he began to feel his anxiety over the night before begin to settle quietly.

After a few minutes, Mickey pulled back just enough that they could look at each other without their eyes going crossed. “Can I ask you a question?” he asked. Ian nodded, and Mickey’s lip quirked. “Are we even in a fight?”

The question gave Ian pause. He had just assumed that Mickey would be non-specifically mad at him for the night before. Hell, Ian was mad at himself. But Mickey was looking at him like he didn’t really agree. Now that Ian was trying to recall details, he couldn’t come up with a precise argument as to why.

“You’d have the right to be pissed off at me, if you wanted,” Ian said quietly anyway. “I keep telling you I won’t pressure you into doing anything you don’t want, but then I keep doing it anyway.” He inwardly cringed, recalling how he had basically begged Mickey to fuck him, and how Mickey had pulled back, like he was overwhelmed by Ian’s desperation.

Now Mickey did look a little pissed. “Did it ever occur to you that you’re not the big sexual villain you seem to think you are?” He grabbed a handful of Ian’s T-shirt and shook him a little. Ian’s eyes went wide, because really, it kind of hadn’t occurred to him. “That maybe me freaking out was my issue, and not because of anything you did?”

His heart skipped a little at that, but Ian wasn’t willing to let himself off the hook that easily. “Is that true?” he asked.

Mickey rolled his eyes. “I don’t know. Kind of. Maybe.” His hand was stilled balled in Ian’s shirt. Ian watched as his throat worked a little. “Fuck, Ian. You never wanted something even though it fucking freaked you the hell out?”

Ian didn’t answer. It seemed rhetorical anyway. And it wasn’t like he was working from the same realm of experience as Mickey was. Sex was a lot of things to Ian, and it was becoming easier to admit that some of those things weren’t great, but at least it wasn’t wrapped up in the sense of powerlessness and violation Mickey seemed to be struggling with. So he kept his mouth shut as Mickey spoke up again.

“I might not know what I’m doing all the time, but I need you to trust me anyway, that I’m trying to figure it out,” Mickey said slowly. He looked at Ian, then away just as quickly. “And maybe I need to trust you more too.”

“I do trust you,” Ian insisted. Because he did, more than anyone. He couldn't pinpoint exactly when that had happened, but here he was, curled up having whispered early-morning confessions in Mickey’s bed, so things had clearly escalated with or without his explicit awareness. “I’m sorry.”

“Would you stop fucking apologizing, for the love of god,” Mickey said grumpily. “Or else we’ll be fighting for real, and I won’t even let you use your girly time-out shit.”

Ian pursed his lips thoughtfully. “That would probably mean no French toast then, huh?”

“You bet your ass,” Mickey said, but he was smiling a little now.

Leaning closer so their noses were just shy of touching, Ian whispered, “I really am sorry.”

Mickey shoved at his shoulder. “Fuck. Well, I’m not going to punish myself just because you’re being a dickhead.” He pulled away for good this time and sat up. “I’m making French toast.”

Ian smiled crookedly. “I knew your threats were empty.”

Mickey gave him a look, and Ian let him go this time, watching him yank on a pair of sweatpants over his boxers and then a T-shirt, which Ian might be his shirt since it was a little baggy on Mickey, and ambled into the kitchen.

After a while Ian stretched and rolled out of bed himself, wandering into the living room to sit on the couch. He smiled to himself a little dreamily as he listened to the sounds of Mickey making breakfast for the two of them. He was amazed that things might be shifting back to normal, some how, in spite of how terrible he'd felt the night before.

The tentative peace was interrupted when his phone rang. Like a preconditioned stress response, he felt his shoulders tense, even as he looked at the caller ID and saw Lip’s name.

He exhaled slowly, then flipped open the phone. “What’s up, Lip?”

Lip didn’t bother with pleasantries, launching right into it. “If I told you to lay low for a while, would you do it?” He sounded like he was muttering so the people around him wouldn’t hear him speak.

Ian raised an eyebrow Lip couldn’t see. “Well, I mean, how much lower can I lay?” He glanced around the apartment. “I barely ever leave Mickey’s place, and when I do, I’m either with him or his brother and his uncle’s guys, or I’m with you or Svetlana.”

“I mean stop following up leads for a while, don’t be fucking difficult,” Lip snapped. “You shouldn’t have gone out to meet Jimmy’s, or Steve or whatever the fuck his name is, dad, last night. Maybe that wasn't a good idea.”

“Why don’t you just tell me what’s going on, dude?” Ian replied tiredly.

“I think I have a theory,” Lip said.

Ian leaned forward on the couch, his heart starting to thump excitedly. “For real? What is it?”

“Don’t worry about it right now. Just lay low.”

“Lip.” The inside of Ian’s head felt like it was made out of fur and he couldn’t muster up the energy to play along with Lip’s over-dramatic bullshit. “Why won’t you just tell me what you think’s going on?”

“Because you can’t play it cool to save your goddamn life, and you’re impulsive and you take stupid fucking risks without thinking about the consequences first and I can’t be worrying about you putting yourself in jeopardy while also investigating this lead,” Lip burst out.

Ian felt his mouth drop open a little bit. “Fuck, man. Tell me how you really feel.”

“Ian,” Lip said on a breath. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—okay, I meant most of that. But I just want to know you’re being extra careful right now, can you promise me that?”

“Why are you being so cagey about this?” Ian asked. “I mean, can you at least tell me that?” Unwittingly, he lowered his own voice. “Do you think it’s someone we’ve talked to already?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Lip said evasively.

Ian finally lost his temper. “How the fuck am I supposed to accomplish that, asshole? This is happening to me, man!”

Lip made an irritated sound. “Fuck you, this is happening to all of us.” Ian tried to interrupt, but Lip just talked over him. “If you would just take your head out of your ass, you’d understand what I mean, Ian. If someone’s trying to hurt you, then he’s also hurting everyone who cares about your narrow ass by proxy. Which includes me, and fucking Mickey Milkovich and even your weird Russian friend.” Lip’s voice turned lower, pleading. “So let me help you by promising me that you will not leave the apartment today.” Lip’s voice pitched low and pleading.

Despite his instant younger sibling irritation at being bossed around by his older brother, Ian ground his jaw together and stayed silent. In his own asshole way, Lip was just telling Ian what he already knew: he owed it to the Lip, and the rest of his siblings (wherever the hell they were), but also Mickey and Svetlana and Colin and maybe even goddamn Ronnie, to take care of himself.

So finally, with prejudice, he bit out, “Fine.” It wasn’t like he had grand plans to paint the town red that day anyway.

“Thank you, Ian,” Lip said, and hung up like he was in a goddamn spy movie.

“Goodbye, asshole,” Ian said over dead air.

Mickey came into the living room bearing a plate piled high with French toast. “That your brother?” He set the plate on Ian’s lap and handed him a fork, keeping his own to start digging into the food on Ian’s lap. Ian tried not to let himself be distracted by how goddamn cute it was that Mickey was so casually sharing a plate with him, and speared a piece of toast with his own fork.

He waved the toast on his fork wrathfully. “Lip’s being a twat,” he said. He bit off a mouthful with his teeth like a shark.

Mickey screwed up his face. “Who the fuck says twat?” he demanded after he swallowed his own bite.

“Maybe it’s time we start adopting some new and more powerful swears, you ever think of that?”

“I don’t think ‘twat’ is that swear, dude,” Mickey said, raising his eyebrows.

Anyway,” Ian said, rolling his eyes, “Lip’s being needlessly mysterious because he says he ‘has a theory’ but I’m ‘too reckless to be trusted’ or some shit. So he just wants me to lay low.”

“You have been laying low.” Mickey glanced away. “Well, mostly.”

“Fuck you, I cannot get any lower,” Ian argued. When Mickey still looked skeptical, Ian threw his free hand up, counting off his main points. “I’m almost never alone, I practically never leave the house, I mean jesus, at some point maybe we should just admit that I’m not being targeted because I’m the asshole, I’m being targeted because whoever is targeting me is fucking insane.” By the end of the rant, he was breathing hard, and Mickey’s eyebrows were raised high because, well, Ian was shouting at him, he realized, fuck. He leaned back against the couch, a little taken aback at his own anger.

“Yikes,” Mickey said on a breath. “Been holding that in long?”

Ian crossed his arms over his chest. “I guess so,” he mumbled.

Mickey sat back beside Ian so their shoulders touched. He let Ian stew for a while, not raising an eyebrow at how aggressively Ian knew he was eating his breakfast. Instead Mickey worked steadily through half the pile of French toast on his own while taking time to flick on the TV and scroll through for game shows. He settled on The Price Is Right and turned to face Ian.

“How you doing?” Mickey asked finally.

Ian did his level best not to make a pouting face. “Fine, I guess,” he muttered. He did feel a lot less irritated. The French toast helped, he figured.

Mickey smiled at him and leaned a little so their shoulders were pressing together more firmly. Ian looked at him, sighing gustily. Mickey sighed too, imitating him, and Ian finally felt himself cracking a smile. It was hard to keep a bad mood with Mickey snuggling up against him.

Until Mickey’s phone rang, shattering the silence.

“Fuck,” Ian said, collapsing back against the couch. “Phones are dumb. Why do we have to have phones?.”

Mickey raised an eyebrow. “Easy on the tantrums, you whiner,” he said, flipping open the phone to answer it. “Hey Uncle Ronnie, what’s up?” He listened for a minute, and then seemed to forget any attempts to be adult and flailed, joining Ian in laying limply back against the couch. “But I don’t want to go to the goddamn Laundromat. You said I had the next few days off!”

Ian couldn’t quite hear what Ronnie was saying in response exactly, but it was clearly in the family of a strong lecture, and Mickey rolled his eyes but didn’t argue.

“Yeah, okay, fine,” Mickey said after a while. “Bye.” He hung up and let loose a loud, irritated groan.

Now it was Ian’s turn to wait patiently. “What’s up, dude?”

“I have to go fucking launder money because everything is the worst and ‘family obligations should always be the priority, Mickey’,” Mickey mimicked in an angry voice. He glared at The Price Is Right in front of them and frowned even deeper. “And who in the fuck would price a plastic patio set at four hundred dollars, you idiots."

“Money laundering?” Ian ventured, trying to keep them on track here. “I gather from your expression it is not nearly as badass as I’m imagining.”

“It’s honestly the most boring job on the face of the planet,” Mickey said. Ian tried to keep his face neutral, but Mickey saw right through him, shaking his head energetically. “Hand to god. I swear. It’s excruciating.”

Ian picked at the edge of the couch, setting the now-empty French toast plate on the ground by his feet. “I could come with,” he said casually. “If you wanted.”

Mickey looked at him in surprise. “Really? You’d want to come with?”

Ian rolled his eyes, exasperated. Anything to get out of the house. “Yes! I want to come with!”

“Why would you want to spend your time at the Laundromat?”

“You’ll be there,” Ian said quietly, looking Mickey in the eye.

They probably should be ironing out what the fuck had happened the night before. Ian knew this. He should probably explain to Mickey how guilty he felt, like he was corrupting Mickey just by being around him sometimes, no matter how bonkers that thought was. But he chickened out, instead reaching out to wrap a hand lightly around Mickey’s fingers. It felt like their secret shorthand, for what exactly Ian wasn’t sure, but Mickey seemed to feel it too.

Mickey tilted his head in defeat. “Fine. It’s your boring-ass decision, but I’m warning you. It sucks.”

As they were leaving the apartment an hour later, Ian thought about his call with Lip. He considered for a half-second describing it in more detail, but decided Lip probably meant staying home that night, since after dark seemed to be when shit seemed to move sideways these days. And besides, it wasn’t like his brother had really given him anything to work with, he thought defiantly.

Ian tried not to be too impressed as Mickey confidently walked into a storefront after hopping off the the Pink Line, Mickey having paid for Ian’s L ride (“It’s a business expense!” Mickey insisted. “But I’m not your uncle’s employee!” Ian argued back. “You’re holding up the line,” the CTA employee told them as they bickered at the turnstile, and Mickey smugly swiped his card for both of them) and picking up a black duffel bag of what Ian had to assume was dirty money, Mickey acting like it was the most commonplace activity in the world.

Okay, so Ian was a little impressed.

Which was probably weird, that Ian was so star struck by the illegality, considering he hadn’t exactly been filing for a legal income tax lately, but it was also pretty fascinating to watch Mickey work in real life.

“So what, now you just take it to the Laundromat? Is that a code name?” Ian asked, following Mickey as he marched down the street like he was completing a painful chore.

“I wish it was a code name,” Mickey said. “Come on, we’re almost there.”

And it was, in fact, not a code name. It was an honest-to-god Laundromat, and Ian was just about to rib Mickey about it some more as they walked inside, the bell tinkling over their heads, when Mickey swore beside him.

“Are you working every shift now? Is there no escape?” Mickey demanded.

Ian looked up and saw Mandy grinning at them both, her elbows resting on the counter, head cradled in her palms.

“Man, do I enjoy these little visits of ours, Mick,” she called back cheerfully. She waggled her fingers. “Hi, Ian!”

“Hey Mandy,” Ian said back. It was hard not to grin at the way Mickey huffed and dropped the duffel bag dramatically behind the counter, but he almost succeeded.

“Can I offer you some pastries? Perhaps some Evian water? Anything to make your stay more comfortable?” Mandy asked, her eyes dancing.

Mickey crossed his arms over his chest. “I miss Eddie.” He glared at Mandy. “Plenty of offense intended.”

Ian bit his lips to keep from grinning and turned to take in the rest of the Laundromat, noting the empty washers and dryers. “This place is bumping,” he observed mildly.

Mandy shrugged both her shoulders. “You missed the rush earlier. We had one college kid come in and wash all his socks. He had like twenty pairs.”

As Ian whistled appreciatively, Mickey snapped his fingers to get Mandy’s attention. “Can you fucking do your job, please? Before the seasons change?”

Mandy made a face at him. “Such a grumpy little shit,” she said, and looked at Ian. “I don’t know how you stand him.”

“He’s a decent cook,” Ian replied, and when Mickey whipped around to glare, Ian smiled for real. Really, he was powerless to resist, the sight of Mickey with his feathers ruffled too much of a trigger.

“Cool it,” Mickey told him, ignoring Ian’s laugh. He turned back to Mandy, and when she just looked at him, smirking, Mickey reached forward and smashed his hand on the circular silver bell on the counter. He looked at a closed door near the back expectantly, so Ian looked too, but nothing happened.

Mandy tilted her head from where it still rested easily in her palms. “Well, Ben and Joe just went to get lunch, so I can bring this to the back room but you’ll have to wait until they get back before they can work on this batch,” she said. She gestured at the row of empty chairs by the window. “Feel free to make yourselves at home, though.”

Mickey spun on his heel and stomped over to throw himself on a chair. Ian glanced at Mandy, bemused, who rolled her eyes, and trailed after Mickey, sitting down gingerly beside him.

Ian laced his hands together in his lap. When Mickey didn’t speak, apparently intent on icing his sister out through total muteness, Ian rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t know what you were talking about, Mick, this shit’s pretty fucking riveting.”

From behind them, Ian heard Mandy bark out a laugh, and then she was strolling over to sit on Mickey’s other side, who scowled even harder at the floor. She leaned around Mickey to grin at Ian.

“I find it to be pretty soothing, myself,” she said. “Beats working at the fucking pancake hut, let me tell you."

Ian laughed. “I bet.” He decided to try and make conversation. “How’s it going living with your uncle, Mandy?”

Mandy also seemed to enjoy it, playing up the pleasantness between them to irritate Mickey. “It’s going really good, thanks so much for asking.” She wrinkled her nose at Ian playfully. “Not nearly as exciting as that epic family dinner from a few weeks ago, though.”

Ian winced. “Yeah, that could’ve…gone better. I was kind of an asshole."

Mickey finally broke. “It wasn’t that bad, I’ve told you that like a million times, you weren't an asshole.”

“It was kind of bad,” Mandy said thoughtfully. "And he kind of was."

"Fuck off, Mandy,” Mickey said.

Ian rolled his eyes, standing up to stretch his arms over his head. “Bathroom?” he asked Mandy. She gestured toward the back corner of the Laundromat. “Try not to kill each other, yeah?” he told them. They both arched their eyebrows in almost spooky synchronization. Ian wondered if they knew how alike they really were.

He took his time in the bathroom, splashing cold water on his face, staring at himself in the mirror and trying to decide if he looked as tired as he felt. He thought maybe.

He unlocked the bathroom door and was about to push it open when he heard Mandy begin to bug Mickey, and he paused, hanging back. He didn’t want to interrupt, and he also maybe wanted to eavesdrop just a little, pushing down the flush of guilt as soon as it bloomed up.

“How are things going with you two?” Although he couldn’t see her, Ian thought Mandy sounded deceptively casual.

“None of your fucking business, is how it’s going,” Mickey shot back.

"Oh, relax. I was just asking.” There was a pregnant pause. “You guys boned yet?”

Mickey sputtered a little. “Fuck, Mandy!”

“You have, haven’t you! You little skank, look at you!”

“God, shut up Mandy.” Ian could hear the sounds of Mickey shifting restlessly on his chair.

Mandy’s voice turned speculative. “Wait. You aren’t saying…Mick, come on. That kid is hot, and he’s totally into you. What’s the fucking problem? I thought we talked about this.”

“Nothing! There’s no problem!”

“You’re fucking it up, aren’t you?”

“I’m not fucking anything up, and I’m not talking to you about this, so fucking lay off.”

It was all Ian could do not to rush out and interrupt, save Mickey from the accusatory tone of Mandy’s questioning, but he stopped himself, curious. He also had a feeling Mandy was sly like a fox.

“So you are tapping that, is what you’re saying?” Mandy prodded. Mickey didn’t answer, so Mandy pushed on. “You hitting that on the regular? Getting all up in there? Having a—”

“Fuck fine, we haven’t, okay? I fucked it up because I’m an asshole and I freaked the fuck out, you happy now?”

Mandy pounced. “I knew it!”

“Fuck you, you fucking pushy-ass gossip,” Mickey groused over Mandy’s triumphant crowing. “You and Colin, I swear to god.”

There was a short silence. Ian went still, not wanting to miss a word of it. “Mickey.” Mandy’s voice was softer now, now that she had acquired the information she sought. Ian heard the sounds of her shifting, her foot tapping the ground. “I know it can be fucking scary. To trust someone like that, you know?”

“Fuck off,” Mickey muttered softly. “I’m not a fucking pussy.”

There was the muted sound of what Ian could only assume was Mandy punching Mickey in the shoulder. Mickey grunted.

Jesus, Mandy, that hurt,” he said, his voice loud and startled.

“Fucking buck up,” Mandy said dismissively. “And you’re not a pussy.” She heaved a loud, tired sigh. “I know you think I’m a bitch, or that I’m too hard on you or some shit.” Mickey conspicuously did not object to this, and Mandy huffed out a laugh. “Yeah, thanks for not arguing that. But I think you also need someone to kick you in the ass sometimes and tell you to fucking do something, or else you'd just sit around, paralyzed all the time.”

There was the sound of Mandy hitting Mickey again, and Mickey swearing.

“Stop hitting me—“

“So this is me, doing that. Telling you to just do it.” Ian could almost hear Mandy rolling her eyes. “You’re welcome. If you ever fuck that kid, you’ll be thanking me. Or let him fuck you. Or whatever.”

“Jesus christ Mandy,” Mickey said, his voice pained, and Ian decided that was his cue.

He pushed the door to the bathroom open so it banged loudly against the wall, alerting both Mickey and Mandy to his approach. He saw them both startle and crane their heads around to look at him.

“You fall in?” Mandy called out. Mickey jabbed her in the ribs with his elbow, but Ian just rolled his eyes.

“Yep. I fell into the toilet. That’s what happened,” he said affably. “Good eye, Mandy.” He fell into the empty chair beside Mickey. “So money laundering is definitely a time-consuming task, huh?”

Mickey nodded violently, gratified. “Thank you! That’s what I was trying to tell you!”

Ian looked at Mickey, at his face still flushed from his argument with Mandy, and he wished there was a way to tell him that he didn’t have to be afraid with Ian. We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, he wanted to say. But he also thought about what Mickey had said earlier. Maybe there wasn’t anything Ian could say, really. Maybe this was about Mickey, not him. Just like there was nothing Mickey could say to make Ian stop feeling like a lecherous criminal every time he thought about fucking Mickey.

They were both pretty fucked up, Ian had to admit.

It wasn’t the most ground-breaking revelation he’d ever had, but it did help to settle his mind a little. He nudged Mickey with his shoulder, who nudged him back. He felt himself relax.

Later, Ian would think he should’ve known better than to expect things to settle enough for him to let his guard down, even just for that simple moment.

A nasally Chicago accent that could cut glass chopped through the air like a machete. “We have to stop running into each other like this!” The bell tinkling over the door sounded like an alarm. Ian spun around to face the sound. His heart dropped.

O’Reilly strode into the Laundromat like a sheriff kicking in the doors of an old-timey saloon, Nowak following behind him placidly, his puffy standard-issue cop coat making him look even broader and squatter than usual.

Ian and Mickey jumped to their feet, Mickey taking a step so he was slightly in front of Ian, but Ian was focused on O’Reilly. The cop looked like a wolf, practically licking his lips as he approached them.

“Ian Gallagher?” he said, his tone jovial. “I’m going to have to ask you to come with us.”

 

****

 

The mick cop and his Pollack sidekick walking into the Laundromat like they fucking owned the place was enough to make every muscle in Mickey’s body go rigid so suddenly his bones twinged.

They just couldn’t catch a fucking break, could they, he reflected silently, watching the way O’Reilly eyed Ian intently, his eyes sharp. Mickey stood up just as quickly as Ian, unconsciously moving so he could defend Ian more easily if he needed to.

"You’re a hard person to find sometimes, you know that?” O’Reilly was telling Ian, coming to stand directly in front of him, maybe a hair too close in Mickey’s opinion.

Ian’s face was going flat, the easy smile from earlier dissolving into the blank, emotionless mask Mickey hated but could nonetheless respect. Himself, he knew he was practically snarling, his hate clear as day on his face.

“Am I under arrest?” Ian asked woodenly.

“And if he’s not, you can both get the fuck out,” Mickey jumped in.

Nowak held a placating hand up. “Let’s just remain calm, okay?”

“Fuck you and your calm bullshit, if you’re going to come around harassing my friend without a warrant, I don’t think we need to be calm about shit,” Mickey snapped.

Ian touched him lightly on the shoulder. “Mick,” he said softly.

O’Reilly was smiling broadly now. “Listen to your boyfriend, sweetheart,” he said.

Mickey glanced at Ian, who was holding O’Reilly’s gaze squarely. “Am I under arrest?” Ian asked again. “Or am I free to go?” Mickey had to hand it to him, he was keeping much calmer than Mickey felt.

“Why don’t you just come with us to the station, and we can answer all your questions there,” O’Reilly said.

Mickey threw his head back. “In what world, come on, man,” he said to the ceiling.

Mandy stood up too now, looking uncertainly at Mickey and Ian. “Mick…” she said softly.

Mickey jerked his head toward the counter and Mandy followed his unspoken command, inching back to the relative safety of the register near the front of the Laundromat. O’Reilly watched her move, eyes darting to track her movement, before returning to Ian.

"Come on, Gallagher,” O’Reilly said, his tone cajoling. “I’d hate to bring you in on official charges just because you couldn’t be convinced to act in the interest of your own safety.”

“My own safety?” Ian asked, his voice still level, even though Mickey could tell he was confused.

O’Reilly seemed pleased at that confusion. “Haven’t you heard? We might have a serial killer on our hands.”

Ian and Mickey both went still, but Mickey brought himself back first. “The hell does that have to do with Ian?” he demanded.

At that, O’Reilly actually rolled his eyes. “You fucking idiot kids have been looking into the murders,” he said. He laughed at Ian and Mickey’s apparent twin expressions of shock. “Come on now, you guys really thought you were slick? Interviewing the families of two Jane Does?”

Mickey kept his mouth shut, gratified when Ian did the same, but he still felt nervous. How did O’Reilly know about any of that shit?

“You might think you’re hot shit, but we’re the police. You don’t think we been watching the families, and conducting our own investigations?”

“Fucking bang-up job you’re doing there, too,” Mickey said under his breath.

O’Reilly opened his mouth, ready to argue, but Nowak stepped in. “You really shouldn’t be getting involved with an open investigation,” he said, that same pacifying tone in his voice. “Especially when you’re already connected to the hands we found on your porch.”

Mickey narrowed his eyes at Nowak. O’Reilly was a blowhard and an asshole, but Mickey thought he might hate Nowak and his toadying mannerisms more. “Oh, so if you call in a crime tip, you’re connected to an investigation now?” he said skeptically.

"Don’t act like you know all the ins and out of criminal liability, pal,” Nowak warned.

Ian interrupted before Mickey could spit back a response. “Am I under arrest?” he repeated.

“We’re under orders to bring in anyone who might be at risk of retaliation by the unsub,” O’Reilly said. Which wasn’t really an answer to the arrest question, Mickey thought. “You’ve been identified as a possible target."

Ian ran a hand over his face. “A target?” His voice sounded weak. Mickey hated how scared he sounded. Even if it was more or less what Ian and Mickey, along with Lip, had assumed on their own, Mickey could appreciate how jarring it must be to actually hear the words from someone wearing a badge.

“That’s why we’re bringing you in,” Nowak interjected. He smiled at Ian, in what Mickey had to assume the cop thought was a comforting way, even though he just looked sweaty and impatient. “It’s for your own protection.”

Ian’s otherwise calm demeanor finally began to crack. “Protect me?” Ian took a few steps backward toward the wall of washing machines almost like he didn’t even realize he was moving. “When have you ever protected me, from anything?”

It was a fair question. Mickey found himself nodding. Even O’Reilly didn’t seem to have a ready response, but he leaned forward anyway. Mickey was put in mind of O’Reilly and Nowak circling Ian, cutting him off from the herd, isolating him because they thought he was vulnerable. Like they thought Ian was all alone. It made Mickey furious.

Which was why Mickey arguable made things worse, unable to keep himself from cutting in. “I’m protecting him. He’s fucking family. We’re taking care of him,” he said. Ian glanced down at him, startled. Even in the heat of the moment, Mickey had the presence of mind to shrug, going a little pink. Just because it was true didn’t mean Mickey didn’t feel like a fucking girl announcing it in front of his sister and a small percentage of the Chicago PD.

O’Reilly tilted his head, focusing on Mickey now. “Oh, he’s family? Just like your uncle?”

It wasn’t like Ronnie hadn’t drilled into Mickey’s head a million times to keep his mouth shut and not to let the cops get to him, to keep his cool. But the way O’Reilly said Ronnie’s name, like he was toying with Mickey, made Mickey's stomach twist.

Ian looked between them, his eyes bleak. “I’m not coming with you,” he told O’Reilly stubbornly. “If I’m not under arrest, you can fuck off.”

O’Reilly seemed almost pleased by Ian’s defiance. He took a small step closer, bringing himself even further into Ian’s personal space. Mickey felt his fists tighten, the already sore, swollen knuckles sending a jolt of awareness up his arm.

“Well, if you won’t come voluntarily, I guess our only option would be to find some type of illegal activity to bring you in on,” O’Reilly said. His face drooped dramatically. “Guess we’re sunk. Unless!” His mouth curved into an exaggerated ‘O’ of surprise. “Say we were to find you in an establishment with suspected ties to mafia activity. What do you think, Gallagher? Think’ll it’ll be tough for us to find something illegal if we start snooping around here?” He gestured at Mickey beside Ian, and Mandy where she had retreated to the front desk. “Be a shame to have to haul in a couple of Milkoviches just because you didn’t want to be reasonable.”

Ian opened his mouth, then closed it again. He looked at Mickey, who could only raise his eyebrows in return. Mickey was painfully aware of the duffel bag of dirty money behind the counter, and he was sure that’s where Ian’s mind was too.

“I want to talk to Detective Johnson,” Ian said firmly. “I’m not going anywhere with you until I talk with her first.”

Nowak gave him a somewhat apologetic look. “Who do you think sent us to come find you?”

“What do you say, Nowak?” O’Reilly asked his partner, taking out his notepad and flipping through the pages expansively. “If we didn’t want to bring him in on his obvious affiliation with an organized crime family,” he said, smiling thinly at Mickey, “what else could we write him up on? Not like Gallagher’s a stranger to the wrong side of the law. What do you think? Suspicion of solicitation? Resisting arrest?”

“I’m not under arrest!” Ian said, beginning to sound outraged.

Nowak’s mouth turned down in thought. “Loitering?” he offered.

“Loitering?” Mickey couldn’t help but laugh in disbelief. “Why not littering? Why not attempted assassination of the president, if we’re trying to get creative?”

O’Reilly stepped forward and shoved both hands against Mickey’s chest in one swift movement, catching Mickey off-guard and sending him sprawling backward, catching two of the plastic chairs and bringing them clattering to the ground beside him.

“I think we’ve had enough out of you for today, shithead,” he said, his lean frame towering over Mickey’s prone body. Ian swore and moved forward to help Mickey up, but O’Reilly stepped forward, blocking his way, Nowak coming up to add another barrier between Ian and Mickey.

“Fucking police brutality, anyone?” Mickey exclaimed, oddly shocked by the sudden violence, even though he knew he probably shouldn’t be.

“Brutality? Really? I didn’t see anything.” O’Reilly knelt so his face was close to Mickey’s. Mickey thought longingly about smashing his fist into the constellation of freckles on the cop’s pale face, but he had to get off his ass first.

“Me neither,” Nowak concurred.

“Leave him alone, jesus,” Ian cried, trying to step around Nowak, careful not to push or shove either of the cops.

Mickey struggled to his feet, but O’Reilly put a boot to the middle of his chest, the touch almost gentle, and nudged him back down with just enough force that Mickey was on his ass again. He probably should’ve seen that coming, Mickey thought, annoyed with himself.

By now Mandy was getting involved. “Get the fuck off of him!” she shouted, racing toward the scuffle, but before she had a chance to kneel down, Nowak was coming toward her.

“You stay out of this,” Nowak told her, stepping forward to block her path.

“Go fuck yourself!” Mandy said angrily, and Nowak looked ready to get rough with Mandy just like O’Reilly was getting with Mickey, and Ian finally seemed to break.

“Enough!” Ian shouted. O’Reilly looked at him expectantly. Ian sighed, and this time Nowak let him move to Mickey. Ian leaned down and pulled Mickey up by an arm.

“Ian,” Mickey said tersely, trying to convey don’t-you-fucking-dare through tone alone.

“I’ll go with you,” Ian said quietly. “Just leave them alone.”

The next thing Mickey knew, O’Reilly was twisting Ian’s arms behind his back and putting handcuffs on. Ian’s expression was stoic as he mechanically followed the motions, not putting up a fight as he was restrained.

“Why the hell are you cuffing him?” Mickey demanded. “You don’t have to cuff him!”

O’Reilly shot him a look. “You want to tell me how to do my job, you can join your boyfriend here for a ride-along.”

“Mick, it’s okay,” Ian said. He even managed a weak smile, like he was trying to comfort Mickey, even though the expression was anything but soothing to Mickey right now. “Just call Lip? Please?”

Mickey nodded, feeling completely helpless. He followed the cops to the door as they led Ian out, manhandling him into the flashing cruiser that was parked at the corner. He had one last glance of Ian’s face as O’Reilly put his hand on the back of his head to put him in the backseat. Ian stared at Mickey until he was in the car and couldn’t make eye contact anymore.

“Fuck,” Mickey whispered to himself.

“What in the name of fucking christ just happened,” Mandy wondered weakly. She stood beside Mickey, and when he glanced at her, she seemed just as flabbergasted as he felt.

“Mandy,” Mickey said to his sister. “Call Ronnie. Tell him to meet us at the thirteenth district precinct. I need to call Ian’s brother.”

Thankfully, Mandy didn’t argue, and Mickey pulled out his phone and dialed Lip’s number, thankful he had it saved. Lip didn’t answer for a while, and Mickey was beginning to panic that he’d have to leave a voicemail, when he finally picked up.

“Who the hell is this?” Lip demanded right away.

“I think Ian just got arrested. Can you come pick me up?” He gave Lip the address for the Laundromat.

“I’m on my way.” Lip made a frustrated sound on the other end of the line. “Why the fuck was he even out of the house? I knew this might happen. I told him to fucking lay low!”

“He was laying low!” Mickey yelled back, his temper flaring. “Just come and fucking get me so we can go get him out of there, alright?”

Mickey heard Lip sighed tensely. “I’ll be there in twenty.”

Lip was at the Laundromat in fifteen. Mickey was waiting on the curb, leg jiggling nervously until he saw the bright red truck round the corner. Lip barely slowed to a stop before Mickey was hopping in the front seat.

“What the fuck did they bring him in on?” Lip demanded, gunning the engine as soon as Mickey’s door was closed.

Mickey shook his head, the familiar helplessness almost making him mute. “I don’t,” he said, swallowing. “I don’t know, man. It was…they just barged in, talking about bringing Ian to the station for his own protection. I don’t know if they’re booking him, or just bringing him in for questioning. I don’t know.”

Lip nodded grimly, his jaw tense, although Mickey could tell he wanted to grill him for more answers.

For his part, Mickey didn’t have any. It was difficult to trace how they’d gone from sitting in the Laundromat, Mickey feeling pissed off and defensive with his sister while Ian gamely tried to lighten the mood, to watching Ian get dragged out in handcuffs. A cold curl of fear was working its way up from Mickey’s belly until he felt like he couldn’t breathe. What if Ian was charged with murder, he kept wondering numbly. What if Ian went down for what some fucked up lunatic had done.

Before Mickey realized it, they were at the station. He would never admit it out loud, but as they marched inside, he was painfully relieved that he wasn’t alone, that Lip was there with him to fight for Ian. He could only hope Ronnie would get there soon too.

Lip hurried to the front desk, cutting in line and ignoring the protests of the handful of people who were waiting to talk with the receptionist. “I need to talk with Officer Tony Markovich,” Lip said firmly. “Can you radio for him? Is he out on a beat?”

The receptionist seemed disinclined to do anything but glare at Lip, and if it had been Mickey, he would’ve started shouting by now. Lip leaned forward, dipping his head conspiratorially. “It’s his mom. I’m from Tony’s neighborhood. It’s kind of an emergency, I guess? You know how she can get.”

Sly motherfucker, Mickey thought with respect, seeing the way the receptionist’s face softened. “That Mrs. Markovich, what a battle-axe, huh?” the receptionist said, shaking her head. She rustled through some papers. “Well, you’re in luck. He’s not out on the beat yet. Let me see if I can get him for you.”

They waited while the receptionist disappeared around the corner to the main office pool. It wasn't long before the receptionist was on her way back with a familiar blond head bobbing behind her.

Mickey felt unaccountably irritated at the sight of Tony’s friendly, dopey face, his mouth stretched into a smile at the sight of Lip, and he was ready to lay into him, but Lip beat him to the punch.

Before Tony could open his mouth to say hello, Lip was stepping forward until he was nearly in the cop’s face. “Tony, where in the fuck is my brother?”

 

****

 

Sitting around in police stations, and lockup, and any other iteration of jail, was getting pretty old, Ian decided. He tried not to let himself think that he might have to get used to it for a while, that this time he might not walk out a free man again. He tried to focus on the positive. Like, at least this time he wasn’t in holding, just stuck in a windowless interrogation room again. He tried to make himself believe that this was a good sign, that it made it more likely he wasn’t being officially arrested and charged with anything in relation to the murders.

It was hard to tell how long he’d been sitting by himself, staring at his reflection in the one-way mirror that took up half of the wall. His phone and wallet had been confiscated and put in a plastic door at the front desk as soon as he'd walked in the door of the precinct.

In a weird way, he was almost relieved when O’Reilly and Nowak finally bustled in, making loud and obvious small talk between them as they settled into the two chairs opposite Ian. He would rather they just get it over with, whatever their fucking plans were for him, Ian thought tiredly.

O’Reilly watched him for a little while, letting Ian sweat it out, presumably. Ian had to admit, the anticipation was painful. Nowak shuffled busily through a pile of paperwork, obviously letting O’Reilly take the lead.

When O’Reilly spoke, he was abrupt. “What were you poking around those dead girl’s families for, huh, Gallagher?”

“Who are you talking about?” Ian hedged.

“We know you and your boyfriend back there have been talking to those dead hookers’ families.”

Ian felt his eyebrows go up in surprise. He was honestly a little impressed that O’Reilly, or at least a cop in league with O’Reilly, was capable of that kind of recon, or that they had finally connected Harriet and Felicia together.

Still, he tried not to let his surprise trip him up. “I’m going to go ahead and remain silent,” Ian said, carefully reciting the words Lip had drilled into his head in the past.

"Is that right?” O’Reilly said smugly. “Well, that’s your call, I suppose. I have to wonder, though, why you think staying silent now is going to make anyone here at the station more willing to investigate a couple of dead hookers. What’s it to you?”

It was such an obvious ploy Ian barely kept from sighing. He gritted his teeth to keep from rising to the weakest bait he’d ever heard.

O’Reilly didn’t seem bothered, clearly ready to try another angle to goad Ian into talking, and Ian was bracing himself for it, when the door to the interrogation room swung open. Ian turned to toward the sound warily, toward whatever fresh hell was coming his way.

But it wasn’t another terrible turn of Ian’s fortune. Instead, it was Detective Johnson, looking to Ian’s eyes like the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen in his life.

Johnson was speaking rapid-fire as soon as she entered the room. “I heard from Officer Markovich that you’d brought the Gallagher kid in without cause. I wanted to let both of you know I’m filing an official report,” Johnson told O’Reilly shortly. “I asked your superior if a few beat cops could keep an eye out for the kid to bring him in for questioning. Then I come into the precinct and hear you’ve arrested him on some bullshit charge?”

"He was in the presence of a known criminal,” O’Reilly said through gritted teeth.

“He resisted arrest,” Nowak added, finally looking up from his paperwork.

Johnson’s expression was arched. “He was under arrest? Under what charge?”

“There was a variety we could’ve chosen from,” O’Reilly said defensively.

“I bet there was,” Johnson said, her tone conveying the opposite. She shook her head like she couldn’t bear to deal with either of the two officers anymore. “Come on.” She snapped her fingers in O’Reilly’s direction until he reluctantly handed her the keys for Ian’s cuffs, which she quickly unlocked. Ian looked up at her, rubbing his wrists, not completely sure he wasn’t hallucinating Johnson like some avenging cop angel.

She nodded at him. “Let’s get your stuff. You’re free to go.”

Feeling a wave of déjà vu, Ian followed her out of the interrogation room, trying to ignore the way O’Reilly glared at both him and Johnson, his mouth opened in a near-snarl like he wanted nothing more than to tear at them with his teeth. It felt impossible that he was walking out of the interrogation room, again. He wondered if he was finally reaching the end of his luck, and what he would turn to next time, when he needed some again.

As they neared the front office, Ian heard a commotion of familiar voices.

“You can’t fucking arrest minors on a whim!” He heard Lip’s voice first before Ian rounded the corner and saw him, his brother’s tense, angry figure shouting and waving his hands dramatically an acutely welcome sight.

Somewhat improbably, or at least in Ian’s opinion, he saw Lip was yelling at Tony, who was arguing back, his voice lower and more pained.

“I hear what you’re saying, Lip, but I can’t just take people out of lockup when I feel like it. I told the lead detective on the case what was going on, and I need to go through the paperwork first—”

“Yeah, by all means, let’s observe the formalities.” And at that gruff but achingly familiar voice, Ian’s heart really started to pound. He saw Mickey stepping forward to crowd into Tony’s space, puffing his chest out aggressively, and Ian felt himself melting a little. “But definitely, go ahead and keep wasting time dicking around out here with us while you could be in back, getting Ian released.”

Tony pierced Mickey with a glare, the expression relatively impressive on Tony’s normally good-natured face. “It’s not that easy, Milkovich, I’m trying to tell you guys—”

“I want to file a restraining order,” Lip said loudly. “On behalf of my brother against this entire goddamn police department.”

“I’m trying to help Ian,” Tony argued, his voice breaking a little in the cop’s attempts to keep his words calm.

“Yeah, well you’re fucking bad at it!” Mickey shot back.

Tony took a step closer, putting his face closer to Mickey’s. “Are you sure I’m the one who’s bad at it? Because whenever Ian’s in trouble, you seem to be right behind him.”

“You think I’m fucking afraid of you just because you got a badge on your chest, you prick?” Mickey shot back.

Tony stared at him levelly. “Maybe you should be.”

Ian heard himself make a small, soft sound from deep in his chest before he even realized he was making noise. All three heads whipped around at the sound.

“Ian,” Mickey breathed out. He looked like he had completely forgotten about everyone else in the room, immediately walking toward him. Until Tony reached out and grabbed his elbow.

“Take it easy,” Tony urged, but Mickey shook him off violently.

“Get the fuck off me, man,” Mickey snarled.

“Watch yourself!” Tony snapped.

Lip moved to stand between Mickey and Tony, glaring at the cop. “Back off, Tony.”

“Oh, for the love of god,” Johnson muttered under her breath, standing with Ian and watching the situation unravel.

The door to the police station swished open and Mickey’s uncle came striding in calmly. His head swiveled, taking in the commotion of the front office, before his gaze settled on Mickey, Lip and Ian, standing tensely beside Johnson and Tony and the other cops that had begun standing by as the disagreement escalated.

Ronnie walked up to the group and stopped, a wave of almost dreamlike serenity trailing in his wake.

“Mickey?” he asked his nephew expectantly. “Everything okay?”

Johnson shook her head before Mickey could answer, gesturing at Mickey and Lip together. “These two boys mean well, but they’re on the cusp of being charged with disturbing the peace, extenuating circumstances or not,” she said, nodding in Ian’s direction.

Ian couldn’t help but shrug sheepishly, sliding his cell phone and his wallet into his pocket from where the receptionist was setting them on the counter, emptying a plastic drawer of personal effects. Even though it didn’t really make sense, he felt guilty for causing a fuss.

“You better clear out of here, Milkovich,” Johnson was saying sternly. She was glared at Mickey, a strange expression on her face. “Officer Markovich might have a point. I’d hate to have to wonder why every time there’s a problem with Ian, I see you.”

Ian opened his mouth to defend Mickey, but Lip, of all people, jumped in instead. “That’s not fair—”

“You too, Phillip,” Johnson cut him off sharply. “Just because I knew your sister doesn’t mean I have endless resources to deal with all her siblings.”

“But Ian needs a ride—” Mickey tried again.

Johnson spun to face Ronnie. “Am I right in assuming I can release this boy into your recognizance for now?”

“I thought I wasn’t under arrest,” Ian said, a little sullenly. He would much rather go home with Lip and Mickey, but seeing the resolved expression on Johnson’s face, he had a feeling she wasn’t going to let Ian out of the precinct unless he was in the presence of a real-live adult.

“You sure are, officer,” Ronnie said evenly. He looked at Mickey. “You ride here with him?” He gestured at Lip. Mickey nodded, a little nonplussed. “Well then, you boys head on home. I took your brother’s car, so I can give Ian a ride back just the two of us.”

Mickey looked between Ian and his uncle, his face uncertain. Ian just wanted to get the fuck out of the police station, so he gave Mickey what he hoped was a reassuring look. “It’s cool, Mickey,” he said.

As Ronnie turned to walk with Ian toward the door, Johnson stopped him. “I don’t want to see you around here again, Ian.”

Ian smiled weakly. “The feeling is extremely mutual,” he said.

“Ian, take care of yourself,” Tony said, watching Mickey and Lip with a hard expression on his face. “You need to be careful.”

“What, you threatening him now?” Mickey said, his voice taunting.

“Mickey,” Ronnie said. That was all it took. Mickey closed his mouth and followed his uncle, Lip and Ian trailing behind. Tony and Detective Johnson watched them go, Ian losing their faces as he turned fully around to walk out the door.

Out on the sidewalk outside the police station, Ian couldn’t help but take a deep inhale. It smelled slightly of city garbage and car exhaust, but now that he was free of the stale confines of the interrogation room, it felt like the freshest breath of air Ian could imagine.

Mickey came up to hold his elbow. “You okay?” he asked in a low voice.

Ian nodded. “Yeah,” he said. He swallowed. “No. I don’t know.”

Beside Mickey, Lip was watching Ian, a worried frown on his face. “That was kind of a shit show, Ian,” he said. "This is why I told you to stay home today." He seemed like he wanted to say more, but then he glanced at Ronnie and fell silent, looking uncertain.

“I’ll drop him off at your building in an hour or two,” Ronnie told Mickey. Ian tried not to let it annoy him that Ronnie was talking about Ian like he wasn’t even there. It was tough.

“You were serious about that?” Mickey asked, sounding disbelieving.

“I think Ian could help me with a job this evening, if he’s not too busy?” Ronnie’s tone was bland enough to suggest that it had been his plan all along, to scoop Ian up and bring him along for an impromptu mafia-related activity.

Ronnie looked speculatively at Ian. Ian glanced at Mickey, who looked mystified, and then shrugged. “I got no plans,” Ian said.

After a long beat, Mickey followed Lip to where they had parked Lip's girlfriend's bright red truck. Mickey waved uncertainly, and Ian watched him get in the truck and drive away. He turned to follow Mickey's uncle, expression glum.

Ronnie had apparently commandeered Colin’s Oldsmobile, Ian saw. He got in the passenger’s side and Ronnie eased them away cautiously from the curb. At least Ian knew where Mickey got his ridiculous old-lady driving habits from now, he supposed.

It was a quiet ride for a while. Ian felt too overwhelmed to force any conversation, so he decided to wait for Ronnie to say whatever he wanted to say.

After a few blocks, Ronnie pulled into a drive-through Dunkin Donuts. “You like coffee?” he asked

It felt like a trick question. Ian nodded cautiously anyway.

As Ronnie bought them both two large coffees (Ian couldn’t help but notice as Ronnie requested not one, not two, but three extra sugars in his coffee. In relative defiance, Ian requested his own coffee black), he seemed to be considering.

Ian couldn’t take the silence anymore, cracking like an egg. “So what’s this job?” he asked, then grimaced. Damnit. He’d been so set on waiting for Ronnie to go first.

“We need to start working on an alibi for you,” Ronnie said, sipping his iced coffee thoughtfully. “That’s your full-time job, starting now.”

Ian wanted to roll his eyes at the drama of it all, but manfully resisted. “I didn’t do anything, though,” he said stiffly. “I didn’t hurt those girls.”

Ronnie spared him a glance. “Of course you didn’t,” he said. “That’s not the point. What I’m saying is you need a paper trail, so those cops can’t bring you in again.”

“Officer Johnson doesn’t think I did anything,” Ian couldn’t help but add. “She made them let me go when she found out.”

Sighing, Ronnie took a sip of his coffee. They pulled out of the drive-through and began taking the long way back to Mickey’s apartment. “That lady cop is just one cop, Ian. What if her investigation goes from implicating you as a potential victim to a person of interest? Or even a suspect, god forbid? You really think she can protect you?”

Ian had no real argument for that. A similar thought had already occurred to him, when he’d first been brought in after he found Felicia Ramirez’s body near Michigan Avenue. He didn’t want to have to depend on Johnson’s willingness to put her job on the line for Ian, some South Side kid she barely even knew.

Ronnie seemed to sense his capitulation. “So we need to work on a physical alibi for you.” Seeing Ian’s raised eyebrows, he elaborated. “Receipts, stop-light cameras, CTV footage at convenience stores, anything that puts a time stamp on where you’ve been during the day.”

It sounded like a solid plan to Ian, but with one enormous hole. “But what about the nights? I can’t account for those as easily.”

“Those are trickier,” Ronnie acknowledged. “Especially in your line of work.” His voice was already carefully neutral, but when he alluded to hooking, his voice got, if possible, even more neutral, and it made Ian a little crazy.

“I’ve been going to a diner,” he blurted out. He cringed involuntarily, like he’d just confessed a terrible secret.

“A diner?” Ronnie kept his gaze on the road, waiting for Ian to explain.

“I haven’t worked for a while now,” Ian admitted. It felt weird to say out loud, but also freeing in its own way, even if he was admitting it to Ronnie. “It just…it didn’t feel. I didn’t want. I, I’m taking a break.” He closed his eyes, flushing at his babbling, stuttering excuse for an explanation.

Ronnie mulled this over, flicking on his turn signal and carefully easing into the turn lane at a five-way stop. “Well,” he said slowly, “that actually makes it a little easier to account for your nights then, I suppose.” He didn’t press Ian for more details about his diner admission, for which he was almost absurdly grateful.

Ian watched the traffic slow as the light changed, feeling guilty that Mickey’s uncle knew that Ian wasn’t working anymore before Mickey himself knew. Hell, Colin probably had some idea too. He’d given Ian enough knowing looks the night before when he’d pulled over in the bank parking lot again and Ian had trooped off to order coffee and sit alone in the diner for another night.

“I’ll get in touch with the building manager at Mickey’s building,” Ronnie was saying, his voice vague as he thought it through. “He’s an old friend of the family and he owes me a few favors. I’ll talk to him about getting some cameras installed inside. They aren’t fool-proof, but at least they’re some evidence of your comings and goings.”

They settled into silence again. Ian felt a little comforted at the thought of a plan to protect himself against O’Reilly and any other vigilante asshole with a badge coming after him, although he didn’t feel nearly as calm as Ronnie looked.

"Do you think the killer is trying to frame me?” Ian asked quietly, trying to keep the horror out of his voice. The thought had first occurred to him while he was being driven to the station by O’Reilly and Nowak hours before. It felt like an invisible noose tightening around his neck.

He couldn’t stop wondering if the person who was doing all this knew Ian had gotten hauled in, if he knew that by terrorizing Ian, he was also tying him closer and closer to the actual crimes themselves.

Ronnie was quiet for a while. “Kid, I think it’s impossible for us to really understand what this person is trying to accomplish,” he finally said, his words deliberate. “I doubt even he really knows for sure. All you can do is try to keep yourself safe. Let the rest of us help you do that too, if you can.”

Ian knew Ronnie was probably trying to comfort him, but his words had the opposite effect. The walls of the car felt like they were closing in on him. He hadn’t gotten carsick since he was little, but the vaguely familiar urge to heave was creeping over him. “Can you pull over?” Ian asked suddenly. “Seriously, pull over.”

“Alright, alright,” Ronnie said, easing the car onto the curb carefully.

As soon as the car was rolling to a stop, Ian unlocked the door and flailed out. He sat on the curb and put his head between his knees. Night had fallen completely by now and he watched the way the shadows shifted on the street, the Oldsmobile spitting smoke from its exhaust, as he tried to catch his breath.

He began to calm down, and as he did, he looked around at the tidy bungalows lining the street where Ronnie had parked. He thought he recognized this neighborhood. Vaguely, he thought he’d met a trick here once before.

Out of nowhere, or maybe with his admission to Ronnie weighing more heavily on his mind than he had anticipated, Ian thought of the first guy he’d ever mindfully, on-purpose slept with for money. Not just a thanks-for-driving-me-to-work blowjob or helping some regular from the club get off in exchange for a place to stay for the night after his shift. No, he thought of his very first official trick, the first one he’d found after he met Svetlana and learned how to navigate the forums for clients.

Ian thought his name had been Chuck, like the tennis shoes.

It had all been pretty anticlimactic, really. The trick wasn’t rude or violent, or especially nice or friendly. It hadn't shocked Ian, the actual act of having sex for cash didn’t shake loose some wellspring of self-loathing or haunt him for days afterward, or at least he didn’t think it had. At the time, it had seemed like nothing special, a natural progression. Ian thought he also hadn’t really appreciated what that first trick meant, not really.

The memory wasn’t any more significant as he replayed it now. For the first time, though, like some kind of thought experiment, he let himself imagine what it would’ve been like if he’d just said no.

He remembered the guy unzipping his pants, sitting on the motel bed, leaning over to untie his shoes. He had been in his mid-thirties, maybe a little younger than what would become Ian’s typical trick, but he didn’t know that then. Ian had watched the trick struggle a little at the tie on his left boot as he’d tugged off his own shirt.

In the actual memory, after taking off his shirt Ian had stripped off his jeans and boxers and let the guy fuck him with a condom he’d brought for the occasion. Now, sitting on the curb almost a year later, Ian envisioned an alternate reality where that hadn’t happened.

If he’d stopped taking his own pants off, and toed his sneakers back on instead.

If he’d looked at the trick on the bed, and said, “Hey man, I’m sorry to put you out, but I think I’m going to bounce.”

The trick would’ve probably snorted, “You serious?” And Ian would’ve shrugged and said, “Sure am. I changed my mind. Have a good one,” and walked out of the motel room into the night.

Would he have gone back to the group home? Would he have tried to get to Michigan, join Fiona and Debbie? Would he have stayed with Lip, taken another go at high school, maybe stopped dancing or working at that shitty strip club, gotten some equally shitty but legitimate job instead? Would he still be thinking about enlisting after he turned eighteen, or would he take a stab at community college?

He probably wouldn’t have crossed paths with Mickey again, or if he had, it probably would’ve been fleeting, a brief near-miss, two ships passing in the night. At the very least, he doubted that right now, he wouldn’t be on his way back from near-arrest for the second time in a month. He definitely wouldn’t have found the dead girls. Maybe the dead girls wouldn’t have been dead in the first place, if whoever was doing this was really targeting Ian and not the girls themselves.

He pulled himself off the curb and walked to the end of the block, still well within sight of Ronnie parked at the curb. Ian knew Ronnie was probably watching Ian like a hawk, but it wasn’t like he wanted to make a break for it or anything. He just needed to be by himself, for a minute.

Across the street at the corner was a park with a basketball court, spotlights set up at the corners of the fence. A pickup game was going on, five guys goofing around, swearing and laughing with each other as they played.

Ian wrapped his arms around his torso against the night chill and watched. The guys looked like they were his age. He wondered if they ever felt years, decades, light-years older than they actually were, like Ian did sometimes.

After a while he pulled out his phone, his fingers pressing the dial button on autopilot.

Mickey picked up on the second ring. “Gallagher, you almost home or what? Are you okay?” Mickey sounded cantankerous and concerned, which Ian considered his signature mood. It made Ian smile, in spite of everything.

“Everything’s fine,” Ian said. He felt like he’d come to some decision, and it made him feel lighter, more buoyant.

There was a moment of puzzled silence. “I thought you were working or some shit.”

"Well, I’m not anymore.” Ian really did laugh then, because it was almost like a double entendre, but Mickey didn’t know that yet. It felt like a secret, a surprise, and he wanted to keep it to himself for just a little bit longer.

"Then why are you blowing up my phone instead of just coming home?” Mickey demanded.

"I just wanted to say hi,” Ian said.

He didn’t have to see Mickey’s face to know he was raising his eyebrows. “You couldn’t just get home and say it in person?”

Ian felt his cheeks get inexplicably hot. “I could still do that,” he said.

“Well, then, move your ass,” Mickey said gruffly. They said bye and hung up.

Moving a little dreamily, Ian walked back to the Oldsmobile, sliding into the front seat where Ronnie waited, the engine idling.

“You okay, kid?” Mickey’s uncle asked.

Ian blinked. He felt slow, placid like a manatee or some other large, slow-moving mammal with minimal worries and infinite patience. It was a nice feeling. “Yeah, I think I am.” He glanced at Ronnie. “Isn’t that weird?”

Ronnie looked at him. He didn’t smile or answer, but Ian could’ve sworn he looked amused. He turned back to pull away from the curb and drive Ian the rest of the way home in silence

 

****

 

Mickey had been sitting on the couch for the last half hour since Ian had called, jittery and unsettled, even though he knew there was no safer place for Ian to be than with Ronnie right now.

When the buzzer went off, he practically leaped across the room to let Ian inside. He stood in the doorway to the apartment, anxiously waiting, holding his breath until Ian got to the top of the stairs and Mickey could drink in his dumb, familiar, beautiful face. He felt like he could breathe again.

“You okay?” he asked as soon as Ian was in front of him. Ian looked strangely calm. He reached out and pressed his hand flat on Mickey’s shoulder.

“Yep,” Ian replied. He was smiling a little. “I’m okay. I have something I want to talk to you about, though.”

Mickey let Ian draw him into the apartment, bypassing the couch for the bedroom. Ian sat cross-legged on the mattress, waiting for Mickey to join him. Mickey did, hesitantly, having trouble reading Ian’s mood. The kid had just been quasi-arrested, for fuck’s sake. Why did he look so eager? Maybe he had news from Ronnie, or Detective Johnson had told him something positive about the investigation.

What Ian actually said, though, was, “I haven’t worked in three weeks.”

Mickey raised his eyebrows. That didn’t make any sense. He knew Ian had worked the week before, the first time Colin had driven him for the night. “What are you talking about?”

Ian took a deep breath and looked Mickey right in the eye. “I’m not working anymore. At all.” And slowly, carefully, Ian explained.

Mickey sat somewhat dumbly, trying to keep his expression neutral while Ian talked, his voice rising and falling steadily, the rhythm keeping Mickey lulled into silence.

When Ian got done telling Mickey he wasn’t hooking anymore, Mickey couldn’t really do anything but watch Ian sitting there on the bed, smiling widely, looking calmer than Mickey had ever seen him.

“Well? Aren’t you going to say it’s about fucking time or something?” Ian prompted. He cocked his head to the side. “I know you hated it.”

Ian wasn’t wrong, Mickey hated the thought of Ian sucking off strangers for a few bucks more than anything. But he felt cautious admitting that, looking at Ian smiling at him expectantly, like he’d given Mickey a present by saying he wasn’t going to have sex for money anymore.

“I’m all yours, now,” Ian said, falling forward with a twist so his head was in Mickey’s lap, looking up at him and throwing his arms to the side dramatically.

Like that was the best thing he could offer, giving Mickey exclusive rights to his body. It gave Mickey a weird pain in his chest.

“Mickey?” Ian was frowning now, and Mickey knew he was fucking up the moment. He didn’t want to take the shine off Ian’s good mood.

“Shit, sorry,” he made himself say. Ian was watching him warily now, and Mickey reached out and ran a hand through his red hair to soothe him. Ian settled back down again, but he wasn’t smiling anymore. “That’s great news,” Mickey added.

“I feel like there’s a ‘but’ in there,” Ian said suspiciously.

“But,” Mickey said, and paused. But then he just made himself say it. “But you don’t have to quit for me, you know.”

Ian sat up. He looked completely perplexed. “But I want to. I thought you’d be pumped. That I’m all yours,” he repeated, a little hesitant.

“No, you’re not mine,” Mickey said, irritated, but rushing to keep talking when he saw Ian’s frown. “I mean, you are, but you belong to yourself first, goddamnit Ian, why don’t you see that? Your body, your mind, they’re all yours, not somebody else’s. It doesn’t fucking matter if you’re fucking some gross old queens for money or you’re fucking me or you’re not fucking anybody, you don’t belong to nobody but yourself.”

Ian was just staring at Mickey wordlessly now, and man, Mickey had only thought he was fucking up the moment before, because now he was really riding it straight to hell. But Ian still didn’t get it, so fuck his own embarrassment; he needed to make this redheaded idiot get it. With everything that was happening, with how out of control Ian must be feeling and dependent on other people for his own safety, Mickey had to explain it better. He needed to make Ian understand.

“I mean yeah, I don’t love thinking about you with a bunch of weird old faggots.” Mickey grimaced. He really didn’t like thinking about it, shit, but he soldiered on. “I mean, I fucking hate it. God, it sucks. But I don’t want to be with you to make you stop being with other guys. You’re not some fire hydrant I’m pissing on to keep you away from all the other gueers in Chicago, jesus, it’s not—” he swallowed, feeling himself wallowing, but powerless to shut up, like their roles were reversed and Mickey was the chatty one who couldn’t stop talking.

He exhaled loudly, looking Ian in the eye. “I want to be with you, because I want to be with you. If you wanted to start hooking again tomorrow, I would still…want you. Because you’re more than just sex, you're way more than that to me. I would still…Goddamnit, I’m not making any sense, this is impossible.” He stopped abruptly, the room suddenly feeling too hot and small.

He stared at his own hands, at the red knuckles, feeling incredibly uncomfortable and damp from flop sweat. He didn’t realize how close Ian had gotten until he was cupping Mickey’s face in his hand, forcing him to meet his eyes.

Mickey expected Ian to kiss him, but instead he just held his face close to Mickey’s face, looking at him solemnly. He looked at Mickey like he didn’t really believe what he was seeing. He ran his thumb back and forth over Mickey’s jaw.

“For real?” Ian whispered, finally. "Do you really feel that way?"

Mickey wanted to get angry, because fuck he didn’t just fucking declare himself like a fucking punk to make a joke, but he couldn’t work up the energy with the feel of Ian’s thumb stroking his face.

“You’re not just some twink to me, Ian,” Mickey said lowly, a little dreamily. Ian might’ve been content to just gaze into each other’s eyes all night, but the longer Mickey sat this close to him, feeling Ian’s breath puffing lightly over his face, he wanted to kiss the hell out of him.

Mickey wanted to do more than kiss him.

“I want to tell you something too,” Mickey said, his voice dropping to a whisper, even though there was no one in the apartment to hear but Ian.

"And it might sound weird, after everything I just said, but I really mean it," Mickey insisted, because fuck, he probably could've timed this better, but he hadn't expected Ian to come home and drop the bomb that he wasn't hooking anymore. He hadn't expected Ian to to get arrested, or to be faced with the possibility of losing Ian that afternoon, or to pour his heart out so clumsily just moments before. He hadn't expected to feel so desperate to show Ian how he felt.

"Just say it," Ian urged him, eyes darting from Mickey's eyes to his lips.

Taking a deep breath, Mickey leaned forward to kiss him, gathering his courage, then said into the moist air between their mouths, “I want you to fuck me.”

He could feel Ian’s surprise in the way he went stiff, but Mickey kissed him again, letting the taste and feel of Ian ground him, and Ian moaned and pressed back, wrapping his arms around Mickey’s neck to pull him as close as he could.

Working blindly, Mickey began unzipping Ian’s jeans and pulling them off. He wasn’t sure, but he thought Ian was shaking, his lips trembling slightly against Mickey’s, but then maybe Mickey was shaking too.

Ian broke away to tug at Mickey’s shirt, yanking at it desperately. “Get this off, please, off, come on,” he muttered into Mickey’s mouth, sucking on his bottom lip, making Mickey jerk, all the nerve endings in his mouth suddenly so sensitive.

When they were both naked, Ian wound himself around Mickey like a vine, touching and kissing everywhere he could reach. Mickey felt himself drifting and losing control, but then he pulled his concentration back. He pushed Ian down, holding him against the bed, and Ian just watched him, chest heaving, waiting and letting Mickey do what he wanted. Mickey was a little taken aback by Ian’s trust in him

Because maybe Mandy was a little right, Mickey thought unsteadily, maybe it was scary to rely on someone like this, and the only thing that was comforting him right now was the dark, vulnerable light in Ian’s eyes, watching Mickey as he kissed a trail down his chest toward Ian’s cock where it lay twitching against his belly, like it was eagerly awaiting Mickey’s attention.

Mickey could choose to do anything to Ian in this position, he realized, nuzzling at the joint between his thigh and his hip. He had the power to make Ian feel good, to show him all the sappy, dumb, incredibly gay feelings that dammed up Mickey’s chest until he couldn’t speak. He licked a long, wet trail from the base of Ian’s cock to the tip, concentrating on the sensitive skin just below the head that felt so good on Mickey when he jerked himself off, and judging by the way Ian’s entire body tensed, it worked for Ian too.

“Jesus christ, Mick,” Ian bit out, bringing his arms up above his head to grip at the bed sheets.

Mickey swallowed Ian down as well as he could and moaned, the taste of Ian almost impossibly good on his tongue. Ian was thrashing a little, making low, insistent noises, but Mickey was distracted, caught up in the way he could swirl his tongue on Ian’s cock, drag his mouth up slowly so Ian's legs and abs tensed, sucking sloppily at the head like a lollipop. Blowjobs were pretty fun, he found himself thinking idly, and then focus, idiot, he commanded, making himself pay attention to taking Ian apart with his mouth.

Finally, Ian started begging. “Oh my god, get up here, please,” he pleaded, pulling at Mickey’s shoulder until he released Ian’s cock and came up beside him.

Ian pressed his mouth to Mickey’s almost clumsily, licking into his mouth like he was chasing his own taste. Mickey whimpered, getting sucked into the kiss, the way Ian nibbled at his upper lip and then sucked on his bottom lip, coming off it with a pop.

Then Ian pulled away, and Mickey couldn’t help but whine a little, chasing after him, but Ian wouldn’t relent. He cupped Mickey’s cheeks, looking him in the eye.

“Tell me what you want,” Ian said, breathing roughly. “Tell me how you want it.”

Mickey squirmed, trying to get his mouth back on Ian’s, but Ian dodged. “Come on,” Mickey muttered, wishing that they could just let things unfold organically here, but then, maybe Ian wasn’t just asking to make sure Mickey was okay. Maybe Ian had to remind himself that he was okay, too.

“I don’t want to do anything you don’t want to do,” Ian was insisting, speaking over his panting breaths. He seemed to weaken, pressing another wet, clinging kiss to Mickey’s lips, then pulled back. “Tell me what you want.”

Mickey huffed a frustrated laugh. “You and your goddamn talking.” He bit lightly at Ian’s chin, moving to suck a deep, wine-colored mark just below his jaw. “I want you to get on me, man, that clear enough for you?”

Ian broke into a wide smile, shaking his head at Mickey. He smacked him lightly on the ass. “Turn over, then,” he said, guiding Mickey onto his hands and knees.

His head resting on his forearms, Mickey tried to protest. “I want to be able to see you,” he said, moving to turn back over, but Ian grabbed his hips and held him still.

“It’ll be easier to get used to it this way, I promise,” Ian muttered into the nape of Mickey’s neck, pausing to press a kiss there. “I just don’t want to hurt you.”

Mickey, being Mickey, still wanted to argue, but then he heard the snick of the lube being opened and Ian’s fingers were on him, were in him, circling and pressing inside his rim, building up a careful tempo as Ian stretched him, and he couldn't speak anymore. He felt like he was burning up, the heat, the stretch of Ian’s fingers as he added a second and finally a third, the press against his prostate almost too much. He moaned, rubbing his sweaty forehead against his forearms. His cock was leaking against the sheets and Mickey lost track of time, caught up in the feeling of Ian playing with his ass.

“God, I wish you could see yourself right now, it’s amazing,” Ian said shakily. Mickey could only grunt in response.

When Ian pulled away, Mickey moaned, pushing his ass back to chase Ian’s fingers, but Ian laughed and moved away. There was the crackle of a condom wrapper and the sounds of more lube. Mickey peered over his shoulder at Ian, who was stroking his own hard cock, a hand holding Mickey’s hip steady.

“You ready?” Ian asked. He sounded nervous, which was weirdly comforting, because Mickey was feeling his own nerves start to creep up. He couldn’t speak, could only nod, and Ian nodded back, licking his lips.

He draped himself over Mickey’s back, reaching down to grab Mickey’s fingers with one hand and lining up his cock against Mickey’s hole with the other. Mickey tried to relax, but the nudge of Ian’s cock made him stiffen, tensing up.

“Shh,” Ian soothed against his skin, mouthing at the nape of his neck. “It’s okay, you’re okay.” He didn’t shove himself inside, giving Mickey a second to get his mind together. “You’re so good, so good Mickey, jesus.” The nonsense words were calming, and when Ian pressed the head of his cock a little harder against the rim, moving it in a circular motion, Mickey moaned, pushing back until just the tip breached his hole.

“Oh my god,” he moaned, overcome as Ian pushed further inside. “Oh my god, Ian.”

Ian had prepped him, but the stretch of his cock was different, an unrelenting, constant pressure, pushing further and further inside until Mickey thought for a panicked moment that maybe he would split open, but then he heard Ian muttering and it was distracting enough that Mickey felt himself relax, his muscles loosening.

“Oh man, Mick, you feel—holy shit, you’re so tight, so good, you feel so good, I love this, I love it, I love—” Ian’s words were bit off as he bottomed out, going still as Mickey adjusted.

It was the strangest feeling, having another person seated inside of you, Mickey thought. His knees and arms were shaking from the sensation. He was gasping, sweat dripping off his face onto the sheets. His cock had softened as Ian entered him, but the longer Ian lay still on top of him, mouthing at his neck and sucking hickeys into his upper back, the impossible heat and push of Ian inside of him, Mickey felt himself start to get hard again.

“Move,” Mickey begged after a while. “Please, Ian, come on.”

And then he was, and the pain from earlier was still there, but it was joined by the amazing feeling of friction, of fullness, of knowing that Mickey was doing something that he’d been so afraid of, and doing it well, if Ian’s gasping breaths and tight, squeezing grip on his hand and hip were anything to go by. The pull and drag against his rim was weird at first, but also so good, and he found himself arching into it, pushing back until each time Ian was burying himself inside again, Mickey was propelling himself backward so the impact was harder, fuller, and he couldn’t stop, he never wanted to stop.

Mickey felt mindless, and almost didn’t notice Ian start to still, trying to speak. “Mick,” Ian huffed out, Mickey barely able to understand the words, so focused on the feeling of being full, “Mickey, I want you to ride me. You want to get on top?”

Mickey felt his ears almost perk up at the words. “Ungh, yes,” he bit out. “Yeah, let’s do that, definitely, yes.” He thought he must sound like an idiot, but Ian was manhandling him onto his side and he couldn’t really focus on anything else anymore. He moaned a little when Ian slipped free, his condom-covered cock shiny and straining as Ian flopped onto his back and pulled Mickey over so he was straddling him, and all he could think of was getting it back inside him.

Ian guided him down, pushing inside Mickey's hole again, and at this angle, the feeling of fullness was almost unbearable, but in the best possible way, and it was even better because now Mickey could watch the way Ian’s face went flushed, hands wrapped around Mickey's waist, Ian's mouth gaping, his skin shining with sweat as he gasped out strained, desperate words, the praise making Mickey preen a little, arching his back as he lifted up and let himself fall back down, groaning at the contact.

“You look so good like this,” Ian said softly, reverently. Mickey could almost feel Ian’s eyes on his body like a touch. He wrapped an hand around his neglected cock and when he started jerking himself, he clenched his muscles and bore down hard on Ian. Ian swore, his back bowing, crying out. Mickey felt Ian's cock pulse inside him, even through the condom, Ian's hands gripping almost painfully on Mickey's waist.

“Did you just…” Mickey asked, surprised, watching Ian twitch and jerk beneath him. Man, he was gorgeous

Ian’s face was red for a different reason now as he looked up at Mickey, seeming stunned. “Fuck, I’m sorry—yeah, it was just.” He broke off, trying to catch his breath.

But Mickey didn’t want to stop, it all felt too good. He tried to keep the disappointment off his face, watching Ian move beneath him. He was no expert on the mechanics here, but Mickey titled his head, eyeing Ian curiously. Ian still felt half-hard inside of him, and the pressure still felt fantastic, and he wondered.

“Can you…more, please? Please, more,” Mickey moaned, throwing his head back as he worked himself on Ian’s softening cock, too far gone to care that he was begging for it.

Ian’s eyes were wide, his face still red. He considered, then nodded weakly, staring up at Mickey. “I can try, yeah,” he said breathlessly. His forehead creased, his eyebrows drawing in as he hissed at the pressure on his over-sensitive cock. “Fuck, Mickey. Jesus.”

Mickey watched him, concerned, even as he couldn’t stop shifting his hips up and down, chasing the feeling of fullness from before, trying to regain the insistent tug on his rim. “You okay?” he asked.

Ian gritted his teeth, nodding, breath whistling from between his teeth. He wrapped his long fingers around Mickey’s hips and changed the angle he was riding Ian, bringing him forward so Mickey had to rest with his forearms on either side of Ian’s head, and holy shit was that an angle, it felt like sparks shooting up his spine, Ian's cock dragging more fully against his prostate on nearly every thrust. It also brought his face close to Ian’s so he could lick into his mouth, which was even better than anything so far, because Mickey was desperate for the taste of Ian, couldn't get enough. His cock dragged against Ian’s belly with every movement and it was perfect, everything about it was perfect, his emotions felt like they were just about to break free from the loose tether he had on them and he didn’t care, not if he could keep feeling like this forever.

Inside him, Ian was nearly fully hard again, Mickey could hear him moaning where he had shifted to press his lips to Mickey’s temple. Mickey started on a long, languid rhythm, dragging himself up until just the head of Ian’s cock remained inside, then dropping down, relishing the slide as he shoved himself onto the full length again.

“Goddamnit, Ian, we should be doing this all the time, why weren’t we doing this all the time, shit, shit,” Mickey muttered, barely aware of what he was mumbling.

“Yeah, Mickey, yeah we should, yes,” Ian said mindlessly, his head moving restlessly against the pillow. He was thrusting up hard on every downward move of Mickey’s hips now, the collision making Mickey’s teeth clack together and his eyes squeeze shut, the sensation so sharp and overwhelming it was almost too much.

There wasn’t a thought in his head other than Ian in that moment, not his dad, not his uncle, not all the shit with the murders, just the stimulation of Ian around him and inside him and reaching to wrap his hands around Mickey’s wrists on either side of his head, anchoring Mickey above him so he could shove more strongly inside, making Mickey swear, then keen loudly, the pressure feeling like it built from his knees to begin racing all over Mickey’s body.

“Holy shit, Ian,” Mickey muttered, pulling back so he could look Ian in the face. He’d come hard with Ian before, but this felt like some kind of dangerous chemical reaction, the force of it almost too strong, Mickey’s skin tingling to a nearly unpleasant degree. He eyes felt wide and anxious as his vision went glassy.

Ian seemed to understand Mickey’s beseeching stare. He reached up and cupped both hands around Mickey’s face, staring into his eyes even as Ian’s mouth went slack, his body moving in a churning rhythm. “It’s okay, Mick,” he murmured. His thumbs rubbed circles just below Mickey’s hairline, and somehow just that tiny touch helped. “It’s okay, just let go.”

Ian kissed him softly, reaching down with one hand to wrap Mickey’s weeping cock in a firm, confident grip, stripping it easily in time with the rhythm of their hips, and Mickey was gone, flying away, his vision going grey and wobbly at the edges, coming all over Ian’s chest and belly. Distantly, he heard someone screaming, and he thought, in wonder, that it was probably him.

His heart was still pounding in his ears when Ian gasped and sat up suddenly, flipping Mickey over so his back was against the mattress now and Ian could pound into him, muttering and swearing and grinding into Mickey, his rhythm going jerky and uncoordinated. Mickey’s body felt oversensitive, the continued stimulation on his rim and intermittent jabs to his prostate just edging into unbearable, but he also loved being able to focus on Ian completely, watching the way his face twisted as he chased his own orgasm, hold Ian through it all. He was struck by how close he'd come to losing Ian tonight, how easily things could've shifted differently, with Ian still sitting alone in lockup instead of wrapped up in Mickey right now. Blearily, Mickey pressed his forehead to Ian’s shoulder and hung on, until Ian cried out, his whole body shuddering, and he went limp on top of Mickey.

They laid against each other for an interminable length of time after, gasping for air, sweat and come and lube everywhere. Ian was heavy, but he kept an arm wrapped loosely around Mickey’s waist, and Mickey drifted, his eyes drooping shut, a loopy smile on his face.

After a while, Ian shifted, pulling out gently, Mickey wincing at the sudden emptiness. There was some rustling, Mickey assumed Ian was dealing with the condom, but he was barely keeping himself awake enough to be sure. Ignoring Mickey’s grunt of protest, Ian got out of bed and Mickey cracked one eye open to watch him go on wobbly legs to the bathroom for a washcloth. Eyes closed, Mickey let Ian move him around, run the damp cloth over his body, clean him up until Ian was satisfied and nudged Mickey onto his side, wrapping his arms and legs around him until Mickey felt completely cocooned. It was weird, how nice it felt, having the weight of Ian’s body grounding him to the mattress, but then his brain still felt fizzy and caffeinated and liable to float away at any moment, so he was grateful for the anchor.

“Sex is really awesome,” Mickey muttered into the quiet darkness, face smooshed against Ian's arm where it lay under his heavy head. He sounded high, but he was too tired to care if his words were dumb.

Ian chuffed out a laugh and nuzzled at Mickey’s hairline. “Sex with you is really awesome,” he said softly.

The words made warmth spread through Mickey’s limp, noodly limbs, and he wanted to squirm at the intimacy of it, but he was too exhausted.

As Mickey began plummeting to sleep, he felt Ian tighten his grip around Mickey’s chest, grasping his hand tight. “Thank you,” Ian whispered into the nape of Mickey’s neck.

Just before he was completely gone to the world, Mickey thought dreamily to himself that he couldn’t even remember what he’d been afraid of in the first place.

Chapter Text

Lip had told Ian once that when you fell in love, the instinctive lizard-like hind part of the brain more or less took over. He said he'd read some studies that proved it was like an engine that drove you to go after someone no matter what, like a heat-seeking missile. “Or an idiot,” Lip had added, scoffing a little.

Ian had thought he’d felt it before. Back in the day, Ian had gotten attached to a few people after sex. Kash, for one, which made him more uncomfortable these days the more he thought about it. And Ned, Ned had been like a whirlwind of infatuation but most importantly, material perks: presents and dinners out and fancy hotel rooms. He thought he knew the feeling of hot excitement, like some kind of pleasant, out-of-control fever.

When Ian woke up the morning after fucking Mickey for the first time, it wasn't difficult to concentrate or focus. He felt remarkably clear-headed, in fact.

He kept his eyes closed for a few minutes, clinging to the replay of the memories of last night in his head like the remnants of a dream. Falling asleep wrapped around him like an octopus after that first time; waking up a few hours later to Mickey’s hands wrapped sleepily but with intent around Ian’s cock, jerking him off until he gasped and got come all over Mickey’s chest, before going in to lick it up and sucking Mickey off until he was swearing and sweating and came down Ian’s throat; and one more time just as late night turned into early morning, rutting together almost clumsily, both too impatient to search for lube or a condom, Ian unable to stop himself from crying out loudly as he buried his face in Mickey’s neck, biting hard enough that he was sure he left a bruise, but at the feel of Ian’s teeth, Mickey had just jerked and come hard enough for his back to arch, come and sweat sealing them together until they collapsed again and passed out until Ian had woken up for good this time.

It had been a hell of a lot of sex for one eight-hour period, that was for damn sure.

It felt impossible to believe it had actually happened, because Ian usually didn’t have good luck, ever, almost as a rule; but then it also felt so natural, like while their relationship had shifted, but it hadn’t changed shape.

Ian squeezed his arms and legs gently where they wrapped around Mickey, and finally, slowly, opened his eyes.

He gave it a second for his vision to focus on the inky-dark head of hair tucked under his chin. He felt the strange, insistent concentration he'd woken up with settle more fully over his body. It felt like what orienting yourself around the North Pole must feel like if you were a magnet.

Ian leaned closer, nuzzling gently at the crown of Mickey’s head, the surprisingly silky hair tickling his nose. Mickey twitched a little in his sleep, then settled down. Ian took a deep breath through his nose. Man, but he loved the way Mickey smelled.

He let his hand trail up and down Mickey’s arm, tickling him lightly, watching the way his fingertips jerked. He felt Mickey’s heartbeat start to speed up, the way his shoulders shrugged slightly, the minuscule movements of his body slowly pulling itself from sleep.

Mickey made a soft sound as he stretched, his shoulders and back trembling a little at the pull of his muscles. He glanced over his shoulder at Ian. He didn’t seem skittish at all this morning.

“Sup, Sex Machine,” Mickey said. He smiled, his teeth bright against the dark-red bruised color of his lips. Ian loved that he’d made Mickey’s lips that way, from kissing him over and over all night long.

Ian felt his own mouth go a little slack. It was difficult to think of anything intelligent to say over the laser-like wanttouchgrab pounding in his head. “Hey,” he said back. He sounded dazed.

Mickey twisted all the way around so his chest was pressed to Ian’s. His hips brushed against Ian’s morning wood and Ian jumped a little at the contact. Mickey’s smile went, if possible, even wider.

“And good morning to you, too,” he said, glancing down between the covers at Ian’s groin. Mickey looked up again, his eyes crinkling at the edges. Ian didn’t think he’d ever seen him smile so easily before.

By contrast, Ian knew his face must look solemn. He couldn’t make himself smile, or stop his brow from furrowing. He thought he was probably freaking Mickey out a little, with the intensity of his gaze, but he felt so serious, so intent, he couldn’t pull it back.

For his part, Mickey seemed the opposite of freaked out. He opened his mouth, most likely to tease Ian about his sudden severity, but Ian swooped in and kissed him before he could make a sound. Both their mouths tasted sour, and Ian’s lips were chapped, but he swept his tongue past Mickey’s teeth anyway. He couldn’t resist the pull, the need to taste Mickey, to touch him, to wrap both arms around him as tight as he could and roll them both so Ian was slotted into the V of Mickey’s legs.

Mickey’s legs fell open easily and he moaned in the back of his throat, the sound going straight to Ian’s dick, making him completely hard. He felt Mickey’s own hard cock press against Ian’s belly and he couldn’t help but rut once, twice, coaxing moans and little gasps out of Mickey’s mouth at every turn.

His mind was beginning to cloud a little, his blood pounding at the feel of Mickey rolling his hips against him, the clear focus from earlier becoming so loud that it wasn’t a focus anymore, just a loud buzzing haze that made it impossible for Ian to stop licking into Mickey’s mouth or dragging his tongue down his neck or biting at the hinge of his jaw. He wondered if this was what addicts felt like, a hunger beyond frenzy, until it became the only priority in your head.

“Christ, Ian,” Mickey panted, throwing his head back on the pillow. “Fuck.” He was writhing in the same helpless, rhythmic pattern from the night before, and the memory of Mickey underneath him, riding him, coaxing multiple orgasms from his body, had Ian squeezing Mickey’s thigh and bringing his leg up around Ian’s hip.

“Ian,” Mickey bit out, even as he arched his hips so their cocks slid more firmly against one another, “Ian, hold on.”

And just like that, Ian stopped on a dime. It was startling. One second he was sucking a hickey into the joint of Mickey’s neck and shoulder, and the next, he was rearing back, panting, searching Mickey’s face.

“You okay?” he asked. He brought the hand not gripping Mickey’s leg up to cup the side of his face. “Too much?”

Mickey breathed roughly through his mouth, rolling his eyes. “No, it’s fine, it’s just—” He grimaced, looking down at himself, or as much as he could see from his position entangled with Ian’s body. “I should go shower or something,” he said. His hands were both still cupped around Ian’s neck. “Maybe clean up.” He sounded torn, though.

“Okay. Whatever you need.” Ian swallowed, trying to force himself to tone it down, but it was tough. He couldn’t stop his eyes from combing over Mickey’s face, from his eyebrows to his cheekbones to his red mouth and back up again in a circuit.

Mickey frowned, his eyes narrowing. “Jesus, are you stoned or something?” He peered at Ian’s eyes. “Your pupils are totally blown.”

Finally, Ian felt himself start to smile, although the movement was a little shaky. He would’ve laughed, if he wasn’t so turned on his legs were shaking. “Yeah,” he said, his voice too husky, so he swallowed. “Yeah, I bet they are.”

It just means I’m really, really, stupidly gone on you, his mind supplied silently. Mickey still looked worried. Ian supposed weapons-grade arousal was probably a little alarming if you were staring it in the face for the first time.

“Do you need water or something?” Mickey asked, and now he did move like he was going to get up.

Ian wrapped his hand around Mickey’s wrist, holding him back lightly. “No, I’m fine,” he said. He tilted his head sheepishly. “I just really want to fuck you again.’

Slowly, another wide, bright smile worked its way across Mickey’s face. It was a little blinding. Whatever unsteady grin Ian had managed slipped away as he stared at Mickey.

Mickey pressed the palm of his hand against the center of Ian’s chest and pushed lightly, his smile edging into smirk territory when Ian immediately sat up, following the barely-there guide of Mickey’s hand.

“Well,” he said slowly, languidly moving to a sitting position. He dragged the pad of his index finger down Ian’s sternum slowly, eyes bright. Sexual confidence was a good look on Mickey, Ian decided, even as he knew his own mouth must be hanging open like an idiot. “I’m gonna hit the can, and then when I get back, we can see how I’m feeling.”

Mickey padded naked to the bathroom and Ian stared unabashedly as he went. God, that ass, though.

Alone on the mattress, Ian blinked. He pulled back the sheet, his body overheated and aroused, and sat against the wall, still breathing a little heavily. Everything smelled like him and Mickey, the sticky, slightly disgusting sheets almost sweet in Ian’s sex-dumb nostrils. He inhaled deep, his nostrils flaring. His cock jerked.

Getting arrested, the terror of sitting in the interrogation room alone, everything from yesterday, really anything outside the apartment, faded to grey in the back of Ian’s mind. He rubbed his hands idly over his chest, remembering the feel of Mickey’s warm, damp skin under his. He remembered the tight clutch of Mickey's ass around his cock. Said cock burbled a dribble of precome over the head. Ian glanced at it, bemused. Christ, he was losing his goddamn mind. How was he ever supposed to get anything done now, when all he could think about was fucking Mickey? This might be a problem.

And yet, he found himself licking the palm of his hand and wrapping his cock in a tight, almost bruising grip. He jerked himself slowly, images from the night before shimmering his mind. He moaned at them, but then, more than the sex, he thought of talking to Mickey beforehand, Ian telling him he wasn’t working anymore, and Mickey’s stumbling, fervent declaration that Ian belonged only to himself, goddamnit, and Ian’s heart felt like it was twisting and he bit his lip, his cock throbbing.

A sharp intake of breath made Ian’s eyes fly open, and he saw Mickey standing in the doorway to the bathroom, staring at Ian’s hand on his cock. Ian didn’t release the punishing grip, the actual sight of Mickey in front of him making it even better.

“Fuck, look at you,” Mickey said under his breath. His own cock bobbed as he returned to the mattress, crawling up on his knees to where Ian was sprawled against the wall. Ian let go of his cock and grabbed Mickey by the waist, dragging their hips together until Mickey straddled Ian comfortably.

“You want to go again?” Ian murmured against Mickey’s temple, kissing the thin skin there over and over.

Mickey swallowed, the sound almost loud like a gulp. “Jesus,” he breathed. “Yeah, fuck. Fuck me, Ian.” He grabbed twin handfuls of Ian’s hair and tugged a little, and just like that Ian was scrambling for the lube, tossed carelessly on the floor beside his backpack. He strained to grab the tube and snag a condom in the same grip, distracted as Mickey attacked his neck, kissing a hot, biting trail down the tendon on the side.

“God, Mick,” Ian bit out, finally straightening back against the wall so that Mickey fell more firmly against him. They both cried out as their cocks rubbed hard against each other.

Mickey reared up to crash his mouth to Ian’s, the movement ragged and uncoordinated. “Just get in me, Ian, please,” he whispered. Ian jerked, grabbing the base of his cock so he wouldn’t come like a shot just from the words. Mickey watched him, his cheeks bright, his lips still red and puffy.

Even though Ian felt almost desperate to fuck Mickey, he still found himself getting a little lost as he prepped him. He kissed Mickey slowly, matching the movement of his tongue with the thrust of his finger in Mickey’s hole, drinking in the sounds he made. Mickey was still pretty loose from the night before but Ian took his time anyway, curling his fingers, searching for his prostate, loving the way Mickey closed his eyes and frowned, completely focused on the feel of Ian’s fingers.

But Ian was only human, and pretty soon he couldn’t take it, taking his fingers away gently so he could roll on a condom and slick up his cock and lift Mickey just enough that he got the idea and braced himself on his knees, staring at Ian as he sank down. They both groaned at the penetration, Mickey sliding until Ian was bottomed out inside him.

“Fucking hell,” Mickey said, his face close enough to Ian’s that the words gusted into his face. Mickey looked overwhelmed, his eyebrows still crooked into a frown.

Ian kissed his flushed face and tried to make soothing sounds, too caught up to manage words at that point. He hooked his hands around Mickey’s knees and arranged him until his legs were wrapped around Ian’s waist, Mickey sitting completely in Ian’s lap, their arms curled tightly around each other.

It was shockingly intimate, Ian nearly supporting Mickey’s entire weight, Ian driving the rhythm as he rocked his hips and pulled Mickey up and down, working him on his cock.

His skin was burning, the low-pitched moans dragging out of Mickey’s chest all he could hear, and Ian was staring at Mickey again, almost mindless as he watched the way Mickey was staring at him too, and Mickey wanted Ian, not just for fucking, he’d said it himself, he couldn't believe that Mickey wanted him.

Things went over the edge at that point, and Ian felt himself sliding like he was following a tide. Mickey reached between them to work his own cock and Ian’s thrusts became jerky, their voices hoarse and shouting, and when Ian came, he couldn’t keep his eyes open, his whole body going tight as a bow, his arms clamping around Mickey’s body, hazily aware that Mickey was coming in warm pulses all over Ian’s chest.

They went limp, Ian tilting to the side until he was flat on the mattress, Mickey draped on top of him, Ian’s softening cock still inside him.

“God, I really like you,” Mickey said into the damp hair at the nape of Ian’s neck.

Ian’s throat worked as he tried to come up with something, anything, to say back, to reassure Mickey that he felt the same way. Mickey tilted his head up and watched Ian struggle. He arched an eyebrow.

“I think I broke you, big guy,” Mickey said. He sounded delighted. “Don’t worry, I got you.” He smiled knowingly down at Ian. Something in Ian’s chest felt like it was being squeezed.

So Mickey could tell that Ian was wrapped around his bruised, tattooed finger, apparently. Ian hoped that wouldn't come back to haunt him, but then, it wasn't like he had any control over it.

The next three days were like something Ian had stolen from someone who was blessed with almost infinite good fortune. In other words, a stranger, but Ian had no intention of giving them back.

Mickey’s uncle had apparently given him some time off, and Ian took the opportunity to spend nearly all of that time memorizing the tricks and tells of Mickey’s body, which Ian decided he could spend the rest of his life doing if he had half the chance. He could gladly become an expert in fucking Mickey. It filled his brain, restructuring everything Ian thought he knew about fucking until he felt just as new and untried as Mickey was, discovering what they liked together.

Mickey didn’t mind being held down and pounded into, his head lolling helplessly against the pillow as he moaned out Ian’s name.

But he also liked to climb on top and ride Ian into the mattress, trapping Ian’s hands down so Ian could do nothing but take it, let Mickey set the pace until Ian was sweating and coming hard beneath him.

Mickey hated being teased and would twist and writhe until he could get the leverage to force Ian to pick up the pace, when all Ian wanted to do was drag his cock in and out of Mickey’s tight hole like a metronome, until Mickey fell apart, clenching around Ian and dragging his orgasm out of him by the throat.

Conversely, Ian was a little addicted to teasing Mickey, holding back until Mickey lost his temper and snarled at Ian to go faster, goddamnit, while we’re fucking young.

Unsurprisingly, Mickey still loved when Ian played with his ass. He could probably be content to lay curled up on his side indefinitely, trembling and whining as Ian’s fingers twisted inside him, but nothing compared to when Ian rimmed him. And just like that first time, Ian couldn’t get enough of it. It was the sounds Mickey made, the way his legs jerked, how desperate he got for it, that made eating Mickey out one of Ian’s new favorite things.

At the same time, Mickey loved going down on Ian almost as much as Ian loved rimming Mickey. He also learned to master his gag reflex in record time, which Ian was a little jealous about. He was sloppy and untrained and made Ian think that he’d had no idea what the term good head even meant before he knew Mickey.

Mickey loved when Ian talked dirty, whispering in his ear during sex, but he was still too bashful to do more than swear or mutter wildly about how good he felt in return, and Ian discovered he liked that even better.

As much as Mickey made fun of Ian for his obsession with consent, Ian found that Mickey was just as obsessed with it, if in a slightly more subtle way, searching Ian’s face for any hint of hesitation, holding himself still until Ian gave him permission with his body, running a hand over Ian’s shoulder and back, asking silently if this was okay, was that okay. Ian tried not to make a big deal about it, but it was the most careful anyone had ever been with his body before during sex.

In between getting more ass on the daily, hands down, than Ian had before in his entire seventeen years on the planet, they cuddled on the couch and watched game shows and ate kids' cereal and made fun of one another and did all the lame, stupid shit Ian had never gotten to do with another person in a relationship before. Man, but he’d only thought he felt close to Mickey before, but he must’ve been fucking blind because this, what they were doing now, it surpassed anything Ian had known. It made him feel shuddery to think about. It made him a little afraid, how tied he was to Mickey. It made him feel scraped open and revealed and vulnerable.

It was only three days, but it felt like a couple years had passed when the morning of the fourth day dawned and Mickey rolled away from Ian with a grunt when Mickey’s phone chirped. He sat up and read a text message, then glanced back at Ian, who was awake and watching him silently.

“My uncle needs me for a job,” Mickey said quietly. He sat back a little so his bare shoulder pressed to Ian’s.

The world outside the apartment was fucked up, and Ian thought it was a dumb idea for either of them to leave, but he didn’t say any of that.

“Svetlana’s been texting me,” he said instead. “Maybe I can go hang out with her while you’re at work.” It was weird, the way he phrased his words as a question, like he was asking Mickey’s permission. But it was true, Svetlana had been on his ass, and he supposed they couldn’t hibernate forever.

Mickey huffed a sigh. “Yeah, I guess that makes sense. I mean, I think I’m just counting some money from a run Colin and some of the guys went on this weekend. It’s going to be boring as shit.”

Ian tried not to frown. "Okay."

"Okay," Mickey said back, sounding just as unenthused at the prospect of leaving the apartment, but they begrudgingly did it anyway.

It wasn’t awkward as they got up and got dressed, so much as it was mopey and maudlin and a little ridiculous. He was going to see Mikey again that night. It wasn’t a big deal, he told himself. Only a whiny asshole would actually pout about that. Of which he was not.

They ate a slow breakfast, stretching it out, and then Mickey walked Ian the few blocks to Svetlana’s. They didn’t hold hands, and they didn’t talk much, but Ian still felt like a string was connecting the middle of his ribs to the same point inside of Mickey, and even though he made himself blush with how sappy he was being, the way Mickey kept glancing at him, like he couldn’t keep his eyes away for long, made the embarrassment settle somewhat.

Ronnie’s advice in mind, Ian made Mickey stop at a liquor store and buy a pack of cigarettes, tucking the receipt carefully into his pocket alongside a stack of others he’d been accruing, proof of his comings and goings.

At Svetlana’s house, Ian rang the buzzer and turned to Mickey. “I’ll see you tonight?” he said, ducking his head. His fingers actually tingled with the need to touch Mickey, so he brought them into fists and stuffed them in the pockets of his jacket.

“You bet your ass you will,” Mickey said. He smiled at Ian, taking a tiny step closer on the stoop.

The buzzer unlocking the door made Ian jerk, and he reached out to punch Mickey lightly on the shoulder. “Be safe today,” he said.

“Hey, that’s my line,” Mickey said, and Ian smiled, feeling Mickey’s eyes on his back as he waited for Ian to get inside.

Svetlana was waiting for him in the doorway to her apartment. “Look who it is,” she said, and even though her face was hard as usual, she sounded friendly. “I forget, I almost think I have friend who look like you, but no, I am wrong.”

Ian grinned and gave her a playful shove as he moved past her into the apartment. He could’ve sworn she leaned in to smell him as he walked past.

She watched him collapse onto the couch, the apartment oddly free of stray Russians. She sat down beside him primly, eyeing him.

“What, Lana,” Ian asked, exasperated.

“You have been fucking short Ukrainian all week,” she announced with a sniff. “Wait. Not fucking.” A corner of her mouth quirked. “Making love.”

Ian rolled his eyes. “Don’t make it weird, Lana.” When she wouldn’t stop staring at him, he squirmed a little. “Things are good.” He smiled at his hands. “Things are really good.”

Lana made an exaggerated groan and cuffed him over head. “I think I will need many beers to listen to you talk about boyfriend.”

She went and got a six-pack from the fridge and sat down next to him again. Ian tried not to smile too wide, but as they popped open a can each and knocked it back, he could feel Svetlana’s eyes on him. She seemed to be taking in Ian’s happiness like a flower, a small smile growing on her own face.

“You are happy,” she observed quietly. She reached out and put her cool palm over Ian’s hand. “I am glad.”

“Me too,” Ian said. He leaned his head on her shoulder, feeling a little drunk on contentment. He finished his beer and got another. For the first time in a long time, he was looking forward to the afternoon.

 

****

 

What did you call a hangover that didn't actually hurt like a hangover? Mickey wasn’t sure, but leaving the apartment for the first time in three days without Ian left him feeling shaky and scatterbrained, like coming down from a sugar high, or a speedball maybe. The last few days were hazy, a blur of cuddling and sex, and even though Mickey had nothing completely equivalent to compare it to, his brain felt like mush.

Good-feeling mush, but still. It made it a little hard to think clearly.

After he walked Ian to Svetlana’s, he started for his uncle’s condo, not really looking forward to helping Colin sort money from a deal he’d been excused from during his break from work.

It felt a little weird going to help his uncle again. Mickey knew Ronnie felt guilty for exposing Mickey and Mandy at the Laundromat, and he also thought he felt responsible for Ian getting arrested, even if that didn’t make any sense. It didn’t stop Mickey from basking in the sudden time off with Ian, though.

He thought it was probably a little lame that he was smiling so much. He had a feeling that outside the context of hanging out with Ian, his wide smile probably looked a little frightening. The woman waiting at the cross walk beside him glanced over worriedly, and he rubbed a hand at his mouth, trying to calm the fuck down.

He was a half-mile from the condo when he felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. He took it out, thinking it was Ian, but he made sure to check the caller ID. Restricted number.

“Fuck,” he muttered to himself. He stopped walking in the middle of the sidewalk, causing the guy behind him to swear and stumble to step around him. Mickey barely even heard him.

The phone was still ringing. If it was an unknown number, or a number with a weird zip code, Mickey could maybe try and convince himself it was just one of his uncle’s guys. Fuck, maybe Colin or Ronnie got a new phone. Never mind that they always texted Mickey their new numbers immediately after getting a new burner, but still, it was possible.

He didn’t make a single move to hit the green ACCEPT button. Maybe he was being a pussy. He was definitely being a pussy, and ignoring the call wasn't going to help anything. He still couldn’t answer it, though. He couldn’t handle the thought of putting the phone to his ear and hearing that same horrible hissing voice again.

Instead, he just stared at it. Eventually, the call ended and a few minutes later, his phone told him he had a voicemail.

He wasn’t smiling anymore as he walked the rest of the way to his uncle’s place. After he was buzzed up, Colin let him in.

“Thank god,” Colin said, stepping aside so Mickey could get into the living room. He didn't see Mandy and Ronnie, but he assumed they were somewhere else in the condo. “I fucking hate getting the money ready to get cleaned.”

Mickey would normally retort that at least it was better than actually going to the fucking Laundromat itself, but the words stuck in his suddenly dry mouth. He sat down in front of where the money was spread out on the living room table and started counting numbly, but his fingers were too clumsy. He kept knocking bills off the table. Finally, he stopped trying.

“I need to show you something,” Mickey said quietly to Colin out of the corner of his mouth.

Colin glanced at him from where he was flipping through a magazine at the counter near the entrance to the kitchen instead of helping count the cash, the fucker. “What’s up?”

Mickey looked around the living room, making sure Mandy or Ronnie weren’t lurking in the doorways, and got up to stand by Colin at the counter. He pulled out his cell phone.

“Did you just need to show me your cell phone?” Colin asked curiously. “Because I mean, my opinion, the flip phone is a little dated, but hey, it gets the job done.”

Giving him a shove, Mickey flipped the phone open. “Jesus, shut the fuck up,” he said. “I got a voicemail.”

Colin raised an eyebrow. “Good for you, buddy.”

Mickey shoved him again. “No, I mean, I got a voicemail. From,” he said, pausing to figure out how to phrase it. “I think I got a voicemail from whoever’s been fucking with Ian. The guy who killed those girls.”

Now Colin looked intrigued, if a little disbelieving. “How do you know it’s the guy?”

Mickey rubbed the back of his neck. “I think he called me before. He’s been calling Ian a lot, but I got a call from him last week and, I don’t know. I think this is him again.”

This time it was Colin who gave Mickey a shoved. “This psychopath’s been calling you guys? And you didn’t think maybe this was something you should be telling Ronnie? Jesus, Mickey, where is your head these days?”

Looking down guiltily, because Colin had a point, Mickey probably should’ve told Ronnie about this weeks ago, Mickey nonetheless steeled himself and hit the speakerphone button. “Do you want to hear it or what, Colin?”

Colin looked a little nervous. “Shit. Okay. Yeah, sure, let’s do this.”

Mickey punched in his password and was about to hit the hash key like the annoying automated lady voice was telling him to do, when Mandy appeared in the doorway. “What are you dickheads gossiping about?” she demanded loudly, making Colin and Mickey jump.

Fuck, Mandy,” Colin shouted. “You need a goddamn cat bell, good god!”

“Maybe you need to work on your situational awareness, Colin,” Mandy shot back, making both Colin and Mickey groan. She sounded just like their uncle, and it was not cute. She looked at where Mickey was cradling his phone between them. “The hell is going on with your phone?”

“It’s nothing,” Mickey told her, at the same time that Colin blurted, “It might be a voicemail from a serial killer.” Mickey slugged him in the shoulder, but Colin just shrugged.

Mandy made a face. “What the fuck? Wait, does this have to do with Ian and whoever’s been messing with him?” When Mickey nodded, Mandy crowded in closer. She raised her eyebrows expectantly. “What’s the hold up? Let’s hear what the bastard has to say.”

Hesitating for just a minute over whether he should be looping Mandy in so fully, but then figuring fuck it, if there was one thing a Milkovich could do it was keep a fucking secret, Mickey hit the last button and waited for the voicemail to play.

The connection was a little crackly, and at first Mickey didn’t hear a thing. He strained his ears, waiting, and finally there was a rustling in the background, like someone was shuffling in socks across a carpeted floor. Then there was a high-pitched sound, but Mickey couldn’t place it. He glanced at Colin, who was staring at the phone, frowning in confusion. When it hit them, they both looked at each other.

Someone on the voicemail was whistling.

It was a song Mickey vaguely recognized, the whistling just off-key and whispery enough that he couldn’t identify it right away.

Beside him, Mandy’s eyebrows were furrowed. “What song is that?” he asked her.

She opened her mouth but it took her a few beats before she could speak, like her mouth was dry, the tinny whistling still drifting out of the phone. “It’s…I think it’s, it sounds like that one old song, I can’t think of the name.”

“Jeepers Creepers,” Colin supplied. His face was twisting in horror a little. It was an unsettling melody to listen to, floating out disembodied from the speakerphone.

The voicemail ended abruptly, the whistling going low and disappearing.

“That,” Colin pronounced, “was fucking creepy as all hell.” The three of them were frozen for a while, hunched over the phone. The condo felt suddenly cold and too quiet. Mickey couldn't take it, snapping his phone shut and leaving Colin and Mandy huddled together by the kitchen counter.

Mickey went back to the table and resumed counting money. His hands were shaking only a little. He considered calling Ian, telling him what had happened, but settled on sending a quick text just to check in.

Everything going okay?

Ian responded almost immediately: Yep, all good here.

Mandy wandered over to the couch, her expression dazed. She sat down, letting her arms and legs splay across the leather. “Mick. Why in the hell is someone calling to whistle at you?”

Mickey didn’t answer. He didn’t know. Even if he did know, he had a feeling it wouldn’t be comforting.

Mandy kept pressing. "What do you think they're trying to do? What do they want?"

Mickey shot her a glare. "I don't fucking know what he wants, Mandy, okay?"

Colin collapsed onto the bench beside Mickey, the jarring movement causing all the money Mickey had been counting to bounce and flutter, disrupting the careful piles. “How do you know it’s a guy, though?”

Mickey exhaled slowly, manfully resisting the urge to punch Colin as hard as he could in the shoulder. He set about re-stacking the money. “Because the voice on the phone was a guy. Besides, it has to be a guy, you really think a chick is running around doing all this?” He gestured with one hand in a way he hoped said, killing and terrorizing innocent people, because he was getting tired of saying it out loud.

“It could be a chick, you don’t know,” Colin insisted with a sniff.

“Well, yeah, theoretically anything’s possible,” Mickey allowed, ignoring Colin’s triumphant grin, “but like, most serial killers are men.” He coughed. “Aren’t they? I think I read that somewhere.”

He was embarrassed to admit that he wasn’t really sure. Colin always made fun of him for being a nerd, but when it came to trivia that might actually be useful lately, he’d been shying away. As dumb as it was, he was afraid to learn more about the crazy assholes who killed people like Hattie Bell and Felicia Ramirez, because it made the danger Ian was in that much more real.

“What about the Salem Stalker?” Colin was asking, still stuck on the gender of the killer.

Mickey threw his head back with a groan. “That’s not a real killer! Days Of Our Lives is not real life!”

“But that’s why it was such a plot twist, and why Marlena was able to get away with it for so long,” Colin went on, like Mickey hadn’t even spoken. “Because no one expected it to be a woman.”

Mandy snorted from her position lounging on the couch. “It’s probably fucking Karen,” she muttered mutinously.

“I think you’d be the first bitch Karen would go after, but since you’re still with us, I think your theory may need work,” Mickey said. He frowned, following the line of thought in spite of himself. “Besides, her batty goddamn mother is the creepier one.” He remembered the way Sheila had looked imploringly at Ian, like she wanted to wrap him in tissue paper and sick him in her basement in some glass case alongside her other doll trophies. Mickey suppressed an involuntary shiver.

“Okay, but what about that Russian bitch friend of Ian’s? The one Colin’s always talking about?” Mandy threw out. Colin spun on her, giving her a look of betrayal. Mandy rolled her eyes. “Don’t give me that look. I’m just asking.”

Against his will, Mickey felt himself shaking his head. “Svetlana is like Ian’s own Russian attack bear. She’d never hurt him.” As irrationally irritated as it made Mickey to admit it, Ian was probably safer right now at Svetlana’s apartment than he was nearly anyplace else in the city.

“Yeah, but whoever’s doing this hasn’t really hurt Ian yet, have they?” Mandy offered. She twisted around on the couch so she was draped over the back, head pillowed on her folded hands. “When it comes to the girls, this person is a killer. But when it comes to Ian, he or she is just a stalker. Stalkers don’t necessarily want to hurt the person they’re obsessed with, or at least they probably don’t think they do.”

Mickey and Colin looked at Mandy with similarly horrified expressions, and Mandy shrugged uncomfortably. “I’ve had a stalker or two in my day. I mean, minor league compared to Ian, but still. I’m just saying, I think you need to keep in mind that we’re not dealing with some kind of mindless psycho killer clown here—”

Colin visibly flinched. He’d always been terrified of clowns. “Oh my god, Mandy, why would you even give us that image?”

“—so their motivations might be a little bit more complex,” Mandy finished with a flourish.

Going still in his movement of wrapping a rubber band around the stacked pile of money in his hand, Mickey turned over Mandy’s words in his mind. It was hard to remember sometimes, when he was faced with the very real fear and anxiety in Ian’s eyes at the mention of the murders, but Mandy had a point, one that hadn’t escaped Mickey’s notice either. The killer almost seemed to be going out of his way not to hurt Ian, at least physically. Even Ronnie had mentioned it before, hadn’t he? An admirer. Ian had an admirer. It didn’t necessarily bring Mickey any closer to a possible suspect, though, because the longer he thought about it, the more possibilities seemed to emerge. Everyone seemed suddenly capable of terrible things. It was all he could not to reach into his pocket and call to check on Ian’s at Svetlana’s again.

He blinked. The money is his hand came into focus again. He looked up and saw Mandy studying him. She was frowning like she did when she was considering something.

“What about that sister of theirs?” she asked. “Fiona. You said Ian and his brother haven’t heard from her in a while.”

Mickey gave her a withering look. “I really, seriously doubt that Ian’s own sister is stalking him.” At Mandy’s thunderous look, he held up a hand. “But there’s no such thing as bad ideas! She’s a person of interest.” He brought that hand up to tug at his hair, more frustrated the more he thought about it. “But seriously, the person who called me was a guy.”

“You don’t know that!” Colin said fervently. “Maybe they changed their voice with that like, software or whatever. Haven’t you ever seen a movie?”

“It would be an easy switch,” Mandy greed.

Mickey let out a long, low groan of frustration. “Okay, I get it!” Mickey snapped. “Hurray for equality. The patriarchy hurts us all. Gender is a construct.” He gave Colin and Mandy a significant look. “Can we move on to some serious fucking theorizing, please?”

Mandy and Colin went silent. Mickey finished rubber banding the piles of money and started stacking them in the duffel bag at his feet. The only sound in Ronnie's living room was the tick of the tall, old-fashioned grandfather clock in the corner.

“What do you assholes actually know about serial killers?” Mandy asked after a while. Mickey glanced at her, and she shrugged sheepishly. “Because I actually don’t know that much.”

Colin looked at Mickey, tilting his head appraisingly. “Well, if you want to know about famous murder plotlines on well-known daytime soaps, I’m your man,” he said. “Otherwise, Mandy’s right. I don’t know shit about this stuff.”

“I watch TV shows and stuff,” Mickey said defensively, but as Mandy and Colin gave him similarly unimpressed looks, Mickey had to admit that it seemed like a pretty obvious miss. Maybe if they understood more of the science behind this madness, it would point them in a more helpful direction.

Like a three-headed monster, they all swiveled their heads to look at Ronnie’s ancient desktop computer where it sat on a desk in the corner, judgmentally watching them discuss serial killers. It made Mickey's clunky laptop look like an iPad. It also had a monitor that seemed to be two feet thick and whirred menacingly as they switched it on.

Mickey started searching for terms at random, mostly ignoring Mandy and Colin's suggestions, and scrolled through websites listing common characteristics of serial killers. A lot of it was generalized, and he doubted that even exhibiting all of the tendencies necessarily made you a serial killer, or else everyone in their old neighborhood would’ve been killing someone.

Alcohol and substance abuse. Voyeurism and fetishism. Fantasies. Growing up lonely and isolated. Psychological abuse during childhood.

“I guess it’s kind of impressive none of us grew up to be serial killers,” Mandy said gloomily, echoing Mickey's thoughts as she read over his shoulder.

“Way to go, us,” Colin said, just as bleakly. He nudged Mickey's shoulder. "So what are you thinking, chief?"

“Most are white, most are male, most are in their 20s or 30s,” Mickey summarized, scanning web pages, clicking back and forth on the search results page to compare what they were finding with other sources. “They’re usually smart. They usually kill white women.” This was not turning out to be universally helpful, like he had hoped.

Colin pointed at the screen, leaning in. “Organized and nonsocial, disorganized and asocial,” he read. “Huh.”

Mickey squinted, following where he was reading, then clicked a link to look for more. He didn’t love what he found.

“It would almost be better if the fucker was asocial and disorganized like a hoarder,” Mandy said, voicing Mickey’s exact thoughts. “At least he’d stand out more, I guess.”

“But whoever’s doing this seems more like the other type,” Colin filled in. “Careful. Controlled. Likes to fuck around with victims and families, blend into his surroundings, which is kind of what this person’s doing to Ian.”

“And he likes to dismember bodies,” Mickey said, which for him was the clincher. All he could see in his mind was dismembered hands, dismembered feet.

He felt a sinking in his stomach. It seemed like the whole motivation of a more organized killer was to blend in. Fuck. Why couldn’t he just be creepy and hover around in the shadows like in bad TV cop dramas? It would be so much easier. Mickey sat back and sighed.

Mandy nudged Mickey’s shoulder. “Look,” she said, pointing, then read aloud, “‘a serial killer keeps killing until he’s caught, he dies, he kills himself or he burns out.’” She made a sound in her throat. “Well, fuck.”

It was disheartening, but not necessarily surprising, Mickey reasoned. If you were a killer, and you liked to kill, if you really got off on it, why would you stop otherwise? What caught Mickey’s attention most was the paragraph after what Mandy had read. The word “signature” jumped out at him. Something the killer did every time, but that was for emotional satisfaction, not necessarily essential to the kill itself. Cutting off the hands and feet sprung immediately to Mickey’s mind, but it seemed too easy. He felt like he was missing something.

He tried to fit that possible signature to someone on his list of possible murderous assholes, but it felt so flimsy, it seemed to fit all of them. Kash, Ned, possibly Jimmy, that spineless little shithead, maybe even Batty Sheila for diversity’s sake. O’Reilly and Nowak, although it seemed almost impossible to think a cop would be so reckless. Maybe some old trick of Ian’s they hadn’t thought to talk to yet?

“Well, whoever’s doing this, he’s definitely an asshole,” Colin said, interrupting Mickey’s thoughts, then added, “or she is.”

“Colin,” Mickey snapped. “I swear to god. I told you, the person who called me was a man.”

“What I want to know is how a stranger was able to get his hands on your phone number in the first place,” Uncle Ronnie asked from the doorway, his voice startling all of them to varying degrees. Mandy yelped and clapped her hand over his mouth, Colin jerked around and banged a hip against the side of the chair so hard he bent over with a wheeze, and Mickey hissed “Jesus christ”, his hands flying from the keyboard as he spun to face the doorway.

Ronnie didn't seem to notice, or care, how much he’d scared his nephews and niece. He seemed too busy being puzzled.

Mickey tried to manually force his heart to stop pounding before he glared at his uncle. “What do you mean, you don’t understand?” he bit out, adding you goddamn mafia ninja silently in his head.

Ronnie wandered over to sit on the arm of the couch closest to the computer desk. “Well, it’s a burner,” he said. “How could he track down your number if you’re getting a new prepaid phone every two weeks?”

A heavy, burning weight settled in Mickey’s stomach. “Well, about that. Funny thing.”

One of Ronnie’s eyebrows began to rise slowly. “Funny, as in ha-ha? Or funny, as in my-well-meaning-but-careless-nephew-forgot-to-engage-his-brain-once-again?”

Balls. Mickey looked away, a blush that was a little painful sweeping over his skin. “Um,” he said. “There’s a reason I haven’t gotten a new burner phone recently.”

“Is there,” Ronnie said flatly.

Mickey nodded, staring fixedly at a crack in the plaster on the wall almost at the ceiling. “Yes. There is.”

Colin elbowed him in the side. “You haven’t been getting a new burner?” He sounded scandalized, which, fair enough. Keeping their phones fresh was bush league, in their uncle’s line of work. It was one of the first things he’d ever taught Mickey when he’d first started helping his uncle out on jobs. And then Mickey had gone and started thinking with his stupid dick (and his stupid goddamn defective girly feelings, he added sourly) and fucked it all up.

“I might have been saving this phone,” Mickey said carefully.

“For what, the memories? Scrapbooking?” His uncle sounded the farthest thing from amused. He crossed his arms, staring Mickey down. Mickey struggled to explain.

“If anything happened, you know…to Ian…I didn’t want there to be a chance he couldn’t,” he paused, swallowing and looking away, before mumbling, “get a hold of me, if he needed to.”

Ronnie just looked more confused. “But Mick, why wouldn’t you just give him the new number?”

But what if something happened in those minutes or hours before Mickey could tell Ian his number? he wanted to argue back, but he knew he would just sound like he was being impressively paranoid, so he stayed silent. And besides, that wasn’t the only reason. There was no way he was going to admit what a fucking sap he’d become.

But Mandy, goddamn her, snapped her fingers in sudden realization anyway. “You save his text messages, don’t you?” Mandy guessed. Mickey just scowled, which seemed to be confirmation. “Oh my god, you totally do!”

Colin was looking at Mickey like he’d never seen his brother before. “Man, you’re gone, aren’t you?” He shook his head in wonder. “Your brain must be mush these days.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Mickey snapped. “I wasn’t thinking, okay? I forgot.”

“Kiddo,” Ronnie said in disapproval.

“I know,” Mickey muttered.

“Seriously, kiddo,” Ronnie repeated, with feeling.

“I know!” Mickey said hotly. “I know.”

Ronnie looked up at the ceiling for strength. When he looked back at Mickey, his eyes were hard. “When you finish up here, you’re going to go get another burner. You’re going to destroy the phone you already have. You’re going to tell me when you’ve completed both of these tasks, and then, next week, you’re going to get another burner. Is that clear?”

“Yes, fine, jesus, I’m not stupid,” Mickey said, irritated at the micromanaging, even as the embarrassment was still hot under his collar.

“You better watch that attitude,” Ronnie said softly. “I know you’re got some stuff going on right now. And by extension, we all do too. But you need to pull it together, Mickey.”

Mickey nodded, staring at his hands. Ronnie stared him down for a little longer, than sighed and stood up, shaking his head as he walked out of the room. "Don't forget, we've got a job tonight! And send me your new number as soon as you get the burner," he called over his shoulder.

As soon as Ronnie was gone, Colin nudged Mickey's shoulder. “Yeah, Mickey,” he said, his grin wide. “Pull it together.”

“You’re better than this,” Mandy jumped in, unable to fully hide her smirk. “You need to tighten up.”

“I hate both you assholes,” Mickey said. He was too tired to be dragged into a sibling spat. Besides, when Colin and Mandy teamed up, he was pretty much sunk anyway.

His phone rang, and all three of them jerked. Mandy poked it with her finger. “Don’t answer it.”

Mickey rolled his eyes. “It’s not fucking Halloween, Mandy, I can't be afraid of my phone forever.” He looked at the display. “Besides, it’s Ian.” He put the phone to his ear, unaccountably relieved to be able to talk to Ian again. “Hey, man. What’s going on?”

“Hey Mickey?” Ian sounded a little overwhelmed. Mickey went still, but he was still unprepared for what Ian said next. “I need you to give me a ride to Aurora to see Fiona and Debbie.”

 

****

 

Sitting in the Oldsmobile an hour later, Ian knew he was being remarkably jittery, even for him. He was probably making Mickey nervous just through osmosis.

It had been a while since Ian had gone out to the suburbs. They used to visit a few second cousins every once and a while in Downers Grove, but he was startled to realize he hadn’t left the city in close to a year.

He wondered why Fiona had moved her and Debbie to Aurora, of all places. Why hadn’t she come back to the city? Why hadn’t she called Ian or Lip, invited them out? Most importantly, he wondered how mad she would be when Ian showed up on her doorstep unannounced.

Ian had asked Lip that same question, when he’d called him at Svetlana’s earlier, but he had not been overly forthcoming.

Things had been a little stilted between them after Ian had almost gotten arrested the last time. Lip still refused to tell him why he was so on edge or what his latest theory on the killer was, insisting that he wasn’t sure yet and he didn’t want Ian to worry about it. Instead, he begged Ian to just stay inside as much as he could, which just pissed Ian off, because fuck his brother, it wasn’t like Ian was swanning around at all hours of the night anymore.

Long story short, when Ian saw it was his brother calling, sitting beside Svetlana on her couch, he’d been surprised.

“Lip?” he’d asked, already a little buzzed from his few beers.

Lip had leapt right in. “Ian, can you go out to Aurora today?”

Sitting his beer down carefully, Ian leaned his elbows on his knees. “What for?”

“Oh, you know, just to see the sights,” Lip shot back in irritation. “To fucking see Fiona and Debbie, dickhead, why the hell do you think?”

“Why….what.” Ian tried again. “Did you hear from Fiona?”

“No, Fiona is still avoiding me, but Debbie sent me a message. She said she’s worried about Fiona.”

Ian waited for more, but it didn’t seem to be on its way. “That’s it?” he prodded. “You want me to go ambush Fiona, who’s been pretty clear about her desire to stay the fuck away from us, because a thirteen-year-old told you she was worried?”

On the other end of the line, there was a commotion, like Lip was getting up hurriedly from a table and stalking away. Ian heard muffled shushing and Lip snarling, “Don’t fucking shush me, fuck you.” Ian waited until Lip was somewhere louder, with cars driving by, probably outside. “Ian, I think this is serious.”

Ian couldn’t argue there. Overreacting was kind of a relative term these days. “Okay, but why can’t you go?” He corrected himself. “I mean, I’ll come with, but why can’t we go together?”

“I’ve got two finals today, Ian.” Lip sounded strained. “Fuck, the first one’s in an hour. I have to go to it. I’ve been so obsessed with trying to figure out who this goddamn asshole is who’s been threatening you, I barely got any studying in.” He lowered his voice beseechingly. “If I ditch, I’ll fucking fail, and then my scholarship is for shit.”

Ian felt immediately guilty. Here he was, getting day-wasted with Svetlana, while Lip was struggling to balance school and all this other shit Ian had dumped on him, and Ian was whining about going to visit Fiona just because he was nervous of what his sister would say to him.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll do it. I’ll see if I can get a ride from Mickey or Colin.” He paused, then decided to go for broke one last time. “But Lip, are you sure we can’t just wait til tomorrow? Wouldn’t it be better if both of us went?”

Lip exhaled loudly, the sound sharp and impatient. “What if they skip town again, Ian?” He sounded like he was voicing his deepest fear, and Ian had to admit, he’d never even considered that. “They’ve been in the state for months and we had no idea. What if they abscond for parts unknown and we can’t find them next time? What then, Ian?”

“Okay, Lip, okay,” Ian said, trying to soothe his brother. “I’ll go. Shoot me the address.”

And now, later that same afternoon, here Ian was, trying not to melt down from nerves while Mickey drove painfully slowly down 88 West, glancing at Ian every few minutes.

When he saw the exit sign for Aurora, Ian’s nerves went up to eleven and he started tapping his fingers against the glass. What if Lip was right, and Fiona and Debbie had already disappeared into the winds? What if Fiona didn’t want to talk to Ian? He couldn’t sit still.

Mickey reached over and grabbed Ian’s hand. Ian looked down, still a little startled at when Mickey’s casual physical affection manifested itself outside the safe confines of the apartment.

Mickey rolled his eyes. “Calm down,” he said. “You’re twitching around like a smackhead over there.”

“I just wish Lip was here,” Ian said quietly. He felt Mickey squeeze his hand.

“I know, pal,” he said, then let Ian sit in silence, slightly calmer than before, at least in a comparative sense.

The address Debbie had texted Lip (or Ian and Lip still assumed it was Debbie furtively texting Lip, who knew, maybe it was a swamp monster or a ghost, everything was so fucked up Ian felt like literally anything unexpected was possible), brought Ian and Mickey to a small ranch home right near the edge of a field in Aurora. It was part of a downtrodden-looking housing development that had obviously only been partially completed. Open lots that were ragged and overgrown stood empty between nearly identical ranch homes.

Fiona and Debbie’s house was at the end of the street next to a dead end.

Mickey parked at the curb, but when he turned off the car and pulled the keys out of the ignition, he didn’t open his door, and Ian decided to sit quietly beside him for a while too. Ian had explained Lip’s anxiety to Mickey the best he could, and Mickey seemed to understand Ian’s worry. He waited for Ian to make the move.

“Alright,” he said finally, pushing open his car door. “Let’s get this over with.”

They stood on the porch, and after a minute of deliberation, Ian knocked three times on the door. They waited.

The door swung open, and every thought Ian had went whoosing out of his head as he stood face to face with Fiona. It was a little anticlimactic, after all the mystery and avoidance over the last few months. Here Fiona was, standing in front of him, in a normal-looking house, in a normal-if-poor-as-hell-looking neighborhood, and Ian didn't know what to think.

She was thinner than he remembered, her shoulders bony and sharp against the thin material of her long-sleeved T-shirt. Her hair was curly and wild in a messy ponytail on the top of her head. Ian was almost surprised by how familiar she looked, even the confused pucker of her eyebrows so comforting it caught him by surprise.

“Ian?” Fiona sounded beyond surprised. “What are you doing here? I thought—” She closed her mouth firmly, her eyes going hard. “You can’t be here.”

“Fiona—” Ian tried.

“No, Ian!” Her eyes were wild. “You can’t be here! Go home.”

“I’m not leaving until you talk to me,” Ian said stubbornly. He stopped short of actually crossing his arms over his chest, but it was a near thing. Something about being with his older siblings just made him feel like a tween again.

Fiona stared him down, and for a moment it was like no time had passed at all. He was looking at his older sister, and she was pissed. They stared each other down, neither wanting to budge.

It was the appearance of a familiar red head poking out of a doorway in the hallway behind Fiona that ended the standoff, and Ian forgot about battling wills with his older sister for a minute as he stared at Debbie.

Debbie’s face split into a wide, toothy grin. “Ian! You came!” She rushed forward, hip checking Fiona to the side so she could get to Ian. She threw her arms around Ian’s waist and Ian hugged her back, squeezing a little tighter than he meant to.

She was taller, he thought inanely, of course she was taller, kids generally grew over the course of a two-year period. Her hair was shiny and straightened, falling down her back in a long, red ponytail. She smelled almost exactly the same. Ian felt his throat get thick, swallowing gummily. He pressed his face into the crown of her head as he held her. He hadn’t let himself appreciate how much he missed his little sister, and now that he was, it felt like he was drowning.

Debbie reared back a little. “Wait, where’s Lip?”

Fiona put her hand on Debbie’s shoulder, nudging her lightly. “Hold on. This was your doing?” Her face was thunderous. “Debbie. Did you call Ian?”

Debbie looked at her like she was slow. “No, I called Lip,” she corrected her. “Ian never answers his phone, and Lip’s the one who’s been trying to get a hold of us so bad.”

“Debbie, we talked about this,” Fiona said. She bent at the waist so she was face to face with Debbie. “I know it might not make any sense, but—”

“No!” Debbie interrupted. She let go of Ian to face Fiona squarely, and Ian reluctantly let her go. “This is stupid! You said we were going to move to Indiana next week, but we can’t even see anyone first?”

“Indiana?” Ian repeated weakly. So Lip’s hunch had been right about this, at least.

“Debs, I told you, I’m trying to protect you guys,” Fiona said. She glanced cagily at Ian, who was watching her wide-eyed.

“And we haven’t seen Lip or Ian since we got back from Michigan, and everything’s getting worse, and you won’t talk to Lip about it, and this is…this is just stupid!” Debbie’s chest was rising and falling jerkily, her face splotchy with anger. Ian knew the feeling.

“Well, we’re here now,” Mickey cut in when silence stretched. “Might as well invite our asses in so we don’t have to keep arguing on the porch.”

Fiona seemed to notice Mickey for the first time. She straightened up, hands on her hips. “Who the hell are you?” She narrowed her eyes. “Aren’t you a Milkovich?”

Mickey held a hand up. “Guilty.” He was giving Fiona an extremely unfriendly look, standing close enough to Ian on the porch that their hips were bumping. Ian thought it was probably subtle enough that only he noticed. He appreciated the contact.

Meanwhile, Fiona was peering at Mickey with interest. Suddenly her eyes went wide. “Holy shit,” she muttered to herself. She stepped out to look up and down the empty street. “Get inside.” She reached to yank at Ian’s coat. “In, come on. Hurry the hell up.”

Ian let himself be dragged inside, Mickey trailing behind him, feeling thoroughly fucking confused. Fiona shut the door behind them, locking the top deadbolt, another heavy lock below it, and then hooking the chain over the side too.

“Expecting some kind of home invasion?” Mickey asked her, raising his eyebrows.

“How do you know Ian?” Fiona demanded, stepping forward to meet Mickey in the middle of the entryway. Mickey was just a hair taller than Fiona, and she was glaring hard at him.

“He’s been letting me crash at his place,” Ian offered. He reached out and put a hesitant hand on Fiona’s shoulder. “Fiona. What the hell is going on? Why…what are you doing in Aurora?”

Fiona took a step back, looking cornered. She inspected him, then looked over at Debbie, who was still glaring at her, then at Mickey, who was also glowering pretty impressively. She bit her lip. “Shit.”

Then she surprised all three of them by swooping in and wrapping her arms around Ian’s neck, bringing him into a bruising hug. The surprise force knocked him back, sending him stumbling into the door. “Whoa,” he said. His arms came up, his hands resting lightly on Fiona’s back. He could feel the way her shoulders were shaking lightly. It was a little disarming, feeling Fiona barely holding it together in his arms. Ian leaned back a little, trying to see Fiona’s face. Her eyes were red. "Hey. You okay?”

“It’s just really good to see you,” she muttered, using the sleeve of her shirt pulled over her palm to scrub roughly at her face. She disentangled her arms from Ian’s neck and stepped back. “Seriously, you shouldn’t be here.”

“What, you owe money to the mafia?” Mickey snarked. Ian shot him a look, wordlessly telling him that he wasn't funny.

Fiona looked startled at the joke anyway, and Debbie took a protective step closer to Fiona. Whatever had happened the last two years, Debbie looked like she’d adopted the mantle of Fiona’s protector, even if she still looked extremely pissed off at her.

“Why don’t you talk to Ian, Fi?” Debbie suggested.

Fiona hesitated, but the longer Debbie stared insistently, the more Fiona seemed to cave. It was surreal, Ian thought, standing here watching his sisters argue silently, like it was just another day.

Finally, Fiona nodded, and Debbie's lip quirked, like she was proud of her stubborn older sister. She guided Fiona into the living room, and Fiona let her. It was a strange reversal, seeing his younger sister taking careful care of Fiona, like she was the parent temporarily.

Ian followed them, glancing around at the house. It reminded him of the house on Wallace Street a little, old and rundown, but warm inside. There was a knit blanket he recognized from the old house spread across a threadbare couch in the corner. He saw framed photos of all of the Gallagher siblings on a shelf near the TV.

“Wait,” Fiona said. “I should get…just wait.” She looked at Ian. “Do you want to, I mean. You can sit if you want.” She turned and went down the hall. Ian sat on the couch, but when Mickey went to join him, Debbie stepped to block him.

“You can come hang out with me.” Debbie jerked a thumb over her shoulder at what Ian assumed was the kitchen. “I’m making cookies,” she told him. “Don’t get in my way.”

“Well, you’re probably making them wrong anyway,” Mickey shot back.

Fiona reemerged from what Ian thought must be a bedroom. She had a folder in her hands. Mickey looked at her for a minute, then back at Ian. Ian shrugged, watching as Fiona settled next to him.

These subtleties were lost on Debbie, who was still outraged at the impugning of her baking skills. “I’m not doing it wrong. I’ve been tasting testing this recipe for weeks, and I just figured out the right proportions of pretzels to chocolate chips, and now it’s perfect.”

Mickey considered thoughtfully. “Pretzels in cookies, huh?” Debbie crossed her arms defensively, but Mickey nodded. “The salt probably cuts through the sweetness of the chocolate chips real nice.”

Debbie’s mouth fell open a little. “Yeah. Um. It does.”

“Well, don’t just fucking stand there, let’s go make some perfect-ass cookies,” Mickey said, ushering her toward the kitchen as Debbie grumbled at being bossed around. Mickey paused to look at Ian. “You cool, man?”

Ian smiled, although he was sure it was probably a grim expression. “Yeah, I’m cool.” He watched Mickey and Debbie until they disappeared fully into the kitchen, and when he could avoid it no more, he turned to Fiona, who was looking back and forth between him and Mickey with a confused expression on her face.

“What the hell, Fiona?” he blurted out before he could stop himself. He knew Lip would tell him he should be more calculated, deal with Fiona the way you would with a wild animal preparing to flee, but sitting there looking at her, it didn't feel like he was looking at a stranger, like he suspected it might after nearly two years apart. He saw his sister, and he was suddenly so mad at her he couldn’t take it.

Fiona was holding a folder in her hand, the cheap plastic kind you bought for fifty cents at Walgreens. She sighed. “Ian, I didn't mean to hurt you. I just, I don’t know what to say.”

“Try,” he said, harshly.

Her eyes were red as she looked at him. Instead of explaining, she looked down at the folder in her lap and opened it. She took out a stack of glossy photographs. After a long, seemingly endless frozen moment, she seemed to make a decision and handed them to Ian, who looked down at the pile, puzzled. “What are these, Fiona?”

Fiona shrugged helplessly. “I’ve been getting these in the mail every few weeks for the last two years.”

He felt his mouth hang open and he looked at them more carefully. His eyes got wider as he flipped through them.

The first one was a slightly out of focus long distance shot from across a busy street. Ian recognized himself standing outside a convenience story, messing with what looked like a pack of cigarettes. A dark station wagon was partially visible in the corner of the frame, blurry as it drove by, like it had been the middle of rush hour on a busy day. Ian noticed his hair was buzzed short in the photo. He looked younger.

The next was a shot of Ian in a restaurant, taken across the street and through the front glass. Ian was sipping a glass of water with a polite, concentrated expression on his face, looking at the guy sitting across the table. The guy across the table had his back to the camera, and Ian could only make out a dark head, but he assumed it was an old trick.

The third was a shot of Ian hunched over, stepping into the passenger side of a big black SUV parked on the curb. He saw a street name in the background and realized he had been near the strip club where he used to work. The photo was nearly a year old, he realized.

They just kept coming, Ian walking along the street, Ian leaving work at the White Swallow, Ian waiting on the platform for the L, Ian hugging Lip after one of their dinners together.

Ian felt like he had tunnel vision, his vision going slightly gray as he flipped through more and more photos. There must’ve been nearly a hundred. He stopped abruptly and set his hands over them, unable to look at them anymore.

“Why didn’t you tell me, Fiona?” Ian asked. His voice was dull.

“Which reason do you want, Ian?” she responded. She smiled weakly. “I was scared for you? I was worried that telling you would make things worse? Every time I tried to get close to you again, the pictures came again, and they were…they kept getting worse.”

Gently, she brushed Ian’s fingers where they rested on the photographs. He pulled his hand away and looked at her, swallowing. “How could they get worse?”

Fiona bit her lip. She hesitated, scrutinizing Ian’s face, and pulled a handful out from the bottom of the batch. She flipped through a few, and when she found the one she wanted, she stared at it for a while.

“When I broke it off with Jimmy, me and Debbie were planning to move back to the old neighborhood, stay with Kev and V, and I was going to track you and Lip down, try and work out some kind of custody agreement with Liam and Carl’s new dads. I was sick of it, you know? I couldn’t just let some fucking stranger intimidate me into abandoning my own family, and I was so sure that if I just moved quickly, no one would know. The fucker with the pictures wouldn’t know.”

She handed Ian the picture she had been staring at, angling it down so Ian couldn’t quite see what it was a picture of yet. “The day before we were going to catch the bus, I swear to god, the last fucking day, I got this.”

Feeling dread build up in his stomach, he braced himself and flipped the photo fully up to face him.

The photo was dark, the shapes indistinct, and it took Ian a minute to realize what he was looking at, but when he did, he sucked in a sharp breath. It was the motel room where he used to stay in the months before he moved in with Mickey, the same one where he’d found poor Felicia Ramirez’s feet just weeks before.

He recognized the carpet, and the banged up dresser in the corner, but most of all, he recognized himself lying asleep in bed, his face mostly obscured by shadows but his hair bright red and fiery and obvious. He squinted, trying to figure out the vantage point of the camera. It looked like it had been taken from the ceiling fan that hung directly above the bed. A chill raced down his spine as he thought of someone watching him, patiently reviewing pictures after every night, taken as he slept, until they decided on the one that would most effectively terrify his older sister into silence.

Even thought it was a photo of himself, he still wanted to reach through the glossy photo and tell the redheaded idiot to wake the fuck up and run.

Finally, he tore his gaze away from his vulnerable sleeping form and looked at Fiona. “Holy shit,” he said faintly.

Fiona bit her lip, which was starting to quiver. “I was so scared, Ian,” she whispered. “If someone took that picture, they knew where you were living. They must’ve known I was thinking about coming home with Debbie. Maybe it was a coincidence, but that would’ve been a pretty big goddamn coincidence. It felt like they were telling me to stay away. And the longer I went without calling Lip, or answering any calls, the photos stopped coming. Like that was what this asshole wanted, was for me to stay away.”

Ian’s head was spinning. He tried to imagine where Fiona’s head was at. He tried to imagine what he would’ve done, if he’d started getting similar photos featuring Lip, Debbie, Fiona herself. But then, he thought with sudden realization, maybe he couldn’t put himself in her shoes completely, because if he’d started getting threatening photos in the mail about his siblings two years ago, his first instinct would’ve been to go to Fiona. Who did Fiona go to, when Fiona needed her a parent? Did she just lock it inside herself, deal with it alone like she did everything else?

Ian set the photos away from him on the coffee table, turning the photo of him asleep in the motel room over so he didn’t have to stare at it anymore. “Fuck,” he said, “suddenly even Michigan doesn’t sound so bad.” It was a lame joke, an attempt to lighten the oppressive tension in the room, but Fiona went still and Ian cursed his asshole attempt at humor.

“I wanted you to come with me,” she argued. Her eyes were bleak, but she sounded as stubborn as Lip in that moment. “I begged you.”

And she had, that much was true, Ian could concede. He remembered how they had fought the day she’d come to the group home and tried to convince Lip and Ian to come with her. They’d argued in harsh whispers at a picnic table set up on the scraggly grass behind the building. Lip had been applying to colleges at this point, against all evidence to the contrary, so Fiona had focused all her energy on Ian. She’d been so frustrated, arguing bitterly, and looking back maybe she was hamstrung, trying to convince Ian to do something while feeling like she couldn't tell him all the details without scaring the hell out of him. Like the photos.

And Ian, Ian had been....

He frowned, recalling the moment. Ian had been angry. He had been so, so mad at Fiona, at how she’d fucking let them all get taken away, their family disappearing into the ether.

“You didn’t want to come with me,” Fiona said softly, like she could follow his thoughts, especially his memories of being disappointed that Fiona had not been as all-powerful as he had imagined, once upon a time. “And I couldn’t really blame you, you know? I was a fucking mess.” Her eyes slanted away. “And a part of me thought, maybe that was better. Maybe you’d be safer at the group home. I mean, fuck, it was a level four, wasn’t it? They had to buzz me in and out when I visited you guys, the place was like a fortress. If you came with me and Debbie, who was going to protect you in Ann Arbor? Jimmy?” She snorted at the thought. “That dipshit coward couldn’t protect his way out of a paper bag.”

Ian winced. “I heard you guys split,” he said.

“I never should’ve gone to Michigan with him,” Fiona admitted. She sighed up at the ceiling. “But I figured that whoever was sending me those pictures, at least back in the beginning, I thought they wanted to scare me. I thought they were threatening me through you guys, I mean, some of those photos had Lip along with you in the beginning. I just assumed it was me that they wanted.” She gestured helplessly with her hands, her eyes wide. “I thought that if I left, I would be keeping you safe. God, I was so stupid.”

“No you weren’t,” Ian said automatically, ever the family peacekeeper, but Fiona waved his words away.

“Yes, I was. It wasn’t until I started getting more pictures of you, every time I tried to call you or contact you, that I realized I’m a big dumb fucking idiot and I had never been the main focus at all.” She looked Ian in the eye. “It was you.”

“They were tracking your phone?” Ian asked, distracted by that bit of information.

Fiona nodded. “I have no fucking clue how, but yeah, they were, and really fucking effectively, let me tell you.” She pulled out a cell phone from her pocket. It wasn’t the fancy smartphone Jimmy had given her before, but a shitty disposable flip phone like Ian and Mickey used. “This is my third phone this year. I thought maybe they were bugging it, and then I thought there was some kind of chip they were tracking, to trace the calls.”

“But you kept the same phone number,” Ian said, needing to clarify. “Lip was calling you and Debbie on the same number you’ve always had, wasn’t he?”

His sister nodded again, but she seemed less certain. “Well, yeah,” she said. “I couldn’t change the number, what if you guys needed to reach me? What if Carl and Liam’s foster dads needed me? I didn’t want to go off the grid.”

But you did go off the grid, Ian wanted to tell her. You were trying to protect me, but instead of helping me, you tried to do it on your own, like you always do, and left me behind.

He wasn’t a phone expert, but he was reasonably sure that keeping the same phone number would allow someone to trace all of Fiona’s calls. Come to think of it, he probably should’ve changed his own phone weeks ago, as soon as the killer started calling him, but what about work? What about Lip, what if he had needed to get a hold of Ian in an emergency? What if Mickey needed him?

Hearing the ridiculousness of his own decision-making process, he decided maybe he shouldn’t be so hard on Fiona.

“And when I stayed out of your life, the photos stopped coming. So I thought, for a while, maybe that was enough.” She bit fiercely at the skin around the cuticle of her thumb. “But it wasn’t, and by then, we were in Michigan, and it felt like there was nothing I could do.”

“Why didn’t you call the cops?” He tried to keep his tone neutral. He was the last person Fiona needed to convince as to why someone might think twice about bringing in the boys in blue, but still, he was curious. And more than that, he didn’t understand why Fiona had kept this from him. He doubted he ever would. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I wanted to tell you so many times. I wanted to tell the police.” She ran her hands through her hair distractedly. “I even walked into the police station one time and went right up to Tony’s desk, and I was about to tell him, Ian, and then—” She stuttered to a stop.

Like a deer scenting the air for danger, Ian went still.

“Jimmy had told me, he heard from his dad that you…Ned mentioned that you had been working at a club, somewhere over by Boystown?” Her words were halting, and she stopped again, waiting for Ian to confirm.

“Yeah, I worked at a few clubs near there,” Ian said vaguely. He was watching Fiona carefully now, because he didn’t have to be a fortune teller to know where this was going.

She nodded. “That’s what Ned said.” She looked pleading, like she was begging Ian to understand. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay, and Jimmy said his dad saw you around sometimes, because you two had been…seeing each other.”

Ian almost grimaced at the euphemism. It made him think of Mickey’s reaction when he had first learned that Ian had dated Ned, and his categorical revulsion at the topic. Ian wondered why his own family, or at least Lip and Fiona, seemed to think he was perfectly equipped to handle Ned, to handle Kash, to fuck around with older men, when Mickey was always so worried about him. Ian wasn’t sure who was in the right, but he didn't understand why Mickey was so much more protective of Ian’s heart than his siblings were.

“When Ned mentioned you had been,” and Fiona couldn’t even say it now, instead letting her eyes dart around uncomfortably, refusing to land anywhere. “Jimmy told me that his dad thought you might be…that you had moved on from the club.”

Watching Fiona struggle, Ian was reminded of how much he had hated watching Mickey’s uncle dance around the same topic at that ill-fated family dinner. Why couldn’t people just say it, he wondered. Even Lip struggled with it. Talking around it didn’t make what Ian had done any less real.

“So then I panicked, and I thought, if I tell Tony to check up on you, and he does, and his partner or the other cops found out what you were doing, I would be putting you in a whole other load of danger, and not some hypothetical danger from some asshole with a long-range camera.” She nudged him with her knee. “You’re turning eighteen in less than a year, Ian. You’d be an adult, in the eyes of the law.”

The timing was weird, but Ian felt strangely flattered that Fiona remembered his birthday.

But, predictably, Fiona was hung up on the hooking.

She was squeezing his hand almost painfully, her eyes liquid, but somehow keeping the tears under wraps for now. “Fuck, Ian. How could you put yourself in a position like that? How could you do that to yourself?”

Carefully, moving slowly so he wasn’t actively yanking himself out of Fiona’s grip, Ian pulled his hand away. He was coming to realize, now, that explaining hooking and how he had fallen into it and why he’d kept doing it and what it had been like for him, was a losing, hopeless, thankless battle, especially now that he had more or less retired.

Retired at seventeen, there was a fucking name for his autobiography, he thought humorlessly.

“Fiona,” he tried, searching for something that wasn’t a lie. “I didn’t mean to make you worry.”

Ian supposed he shouldn’t have been as surprised as he was when Fiona hauled off and punched him in the shoulder. Hard, too. Ian rubbed at the sore spot, feeling the hard poke of where her bony knuckles had landed.

“Well, I did worry!” she said fiercely. “And I’m still worried. I worry about you every day. Of all the kids, I worry about you the most.”

Even though he wanted to tell her she didn’t have to, Ian knew that was a fool’s errand. Besides, it was also untrue. Fiona was already frantic with worry about Ian’s safety, and she really didn’t know the half of it.

“But Debbie said you’re moving to Indiana.” Ian thought of Lip’s stressed-out concern over the same fate. “You scared the hell out of Lip, he thought you guys were just going to disappear again.”

Fiona flipped to the back of the folder, breathing out slowly. She pulled out another photo. This one was smaller than the others, which were square, like it had been taken with a different kind of camera. She handed it to Ian. “I got this on Monday.”

Ian supposed he shouldn’t be so surprised, but that awareness didn’t stop the shock from shooting down his spine. It was a photo of Ian and Mickey standing in the vestibule of Mickey’s apartment building. The shot was grainy and black and white. It clearly showed Ian and Mickey’s faces, Mickey craning his neck up to laugh at something Ian was saying.

He set the photo back in the folder hurriedly. He couldn’t look at it.

Fiona glanced in the direction of the kitchen. “Are you and Mickey Milkovich…are you two, together?”

Ian nodded dumbly, caught in his own wild thoughts. He wondered if Fiona receiving the photo of Mickey and Ian aligned with the message Debbie had sent to Ian. Had Debbie contacting Lip triggered whatever stalker was sending these photos to Fiona? Ian thought it was probably the same person who killed Harriet Bell and Felicia Ramirez. Or at least, he hoped it was, fucked up as that was. He didn’t think he could handle more than one crazy lunatic threatening him and his family this way.

On the couch beside him, Fiona was watching him. At the sudden quiet in the living room, Ian could hear Mickey and Debbie bickering good-naturedly in the kitchen. When Ian met Fiona’s eyes, he saw the shadows on her brow bones. It looked like she hadn’t slept in years. Ian had done this, he realized. Unintentionally, but he was the common denominator here. He knew he was being a martyr, but he couldn’t escape the thoughts. He was the reason Lip was struggling in school, and Mickey was panicked and unable to focus on work with his uncle, and why Fiona and Debbie were living like vagabonds, packing up at the first scent of a threat.

“Fiona,” he said again. “I’m so sorry.” It wasn’t enough, but it was all he could say.

Fiona looked horrified. “No, Ian, I’m sorry,” she said, sounding like she was choking. “God, I fucked up. I tried to protect you, and instead I left you all alone.” She was shaking, sobs wracking her body. “I’m sorry, Ian.” She kept repeating it over and over, until Ian pulled her into his arms and was holding her, trying to quiet her sobs.

“Hey, hey,” he said softly, unsure what else he could say. “It’s okay.” Fiona cried for a while, and then she quieted down, sniffing loudly in Ian's arms, Ian letting himself enjoy the familiar feel of Fiona hugging him. He didn't know how long they lay there, leaning against each other.

“Hey.” Fiona and Ian broke apart to see Mickey standing a few feet away from the couch. Mickey winced. “Sorry to interrupt this precious moment. Colin needs his car back.”

Ian pulled away completely, watching how Fiona scrubbed hurriedly to clean her wet face. “Goddamn allergies,” she muttered.

Ian couldn’t help but grin. “I can see a little dust in your eye, there.” He pointed at the corner of her eye and she swatted his hand away. He looked at Mickey, who was watching him intently. “I guess we have to go.”

It was an awkward parting. Debbie hugged Ian again when she came back in through the kitchen and didn’t seem like she wanted to let him go. Ian held her for a long time. He felt powerless, and most of all, unable to reassure her of anything.

Debbie pressed a Tupperware of hot cookies into Ian’s hands. Fiona was holding the folder of photos, and resisted when Ian reached for them. “Come on, Fiona. They’re of me.” Mickey gave him a sharp look at that, but Ian shook his head. He didn’t have to energy to explain all of that to Mickey now. Fiona reluctantly let Ian take the folder from her hands, and once he had it, it felt like he was holding something disgusting. He held it with just the tips of his fingers.

At the door, Ian turned to Fiona, gripping her hands. “Please don’t go to Indiana,” he said. He held her gaze. “Please. Just stay.”

Fiona looked torn. “But Ian, the last picture—”

“I want you to stay in Illinois, please,” Ian repeated.

“I’ll try, Ian,” Fiona said. Ian heard what she wasn’t saying. I’ll stay until I feel like you’re safer if I go. I’ll stay until I decide I need to act in your best interests. When they’d all still lived together in the old house, Fiona had talked about their Best Interests a lot. Ian had long grown to hate the phrase.

“I’ll tell Lip everything when I get back,” Ian said. Fiona was biting her lip, but she nodded. She turned to Mickey.

“You better be fucking good to him,” she said sharply, jerking her chin in Ian’s direction.

Mickey glared at her, leaning forward a little. Ian thought he was probably just trying to give Fiona attitude, but the movement also pressed Mickey more firmly against the line of Ian’s back. Ian wondered if Mickey realized how much it looked like he was claiming Ian as his own.

“I could fucking say the same to you,” Mickey told Fiona. They glowered at one another. No love lost there.

“Bye, Debs,” Ian told his little sister, and her mouth turned downward.

“Bye, Ian,” she said glumly.

When Mickey and Ian were on the porch, Fiona closed the door behind them, and Ian heard her carefully securing the door with its many locks.

As they walked to the Oldsmobile, Ian couldn’t help but sigh, uncomfortably aware of the folder of photos in his hands.

Mickey touched his elbow. “You okay, man?”

Ian looked at Mickey. He wished they’d never left the apartment that morning. He heaved a sigh again. He was sighing so much these days he felt like a hot air balloon. “It’s really fucked up,” he said. “I’ll tell you later. I can’t…think about it, right now. Let’s talk about it at home.”

He could tell Mickey was aggressively dissatisfied with that response, but he seemed to bite his tongue and went to unlock the car.

Mickey’s hand was on the door, but he was still, staring at the handle. Ian stood beside him. “Mick, what’s up?”

“The door’s unlocked,” Mickey said. “I definitely locked it before we went in. Shit.” He opened the door. “If someone jacked Colin’s radio, he’s going to fucking kill me.”

They went over everything inside of the car, but nothing seemed to be missing. Ian looked at Mickey, and they both shrugged. Ian in particular was too drained to think too hard about it, too caught up in everything Fiona had told him, in the shock of seeing his sisters again after so long. Besides, this part of Aurora looked pretty rough. Maybe it was some kids goofing around.

Ian settled into his seat and set the folder full of his fucked up stalker photos on the floor as Mickey started the car. As Mickey went to shift out of park, Ian saw him glance at the dashboard and pause. Mickey cocked an eyebrow. “The trunk’s open.”

They looked at each other, but neither spoke. Mickey took the key out of the ignition and they got out of the car together, walking to the back and staring down at the trunk. It was slightly ajar.

"God fucking damnit," Mickey said under his breath.

Ian bit his lip, because he didn't know exactly what was coming, but he still felt like he knew. Mickey reached forward and pulled the door to the trunk all the way up, and no matter how much Ian had braced himself, he still gasped and stepped back, Mickey biting off a curse as he looked down. They both stared, stunned.

There was a body wrapped in a thick black tarp in the trunk of the Oldsmobile. It was a young girl, and her eyes had been scooped out of her head.

Chapter Text

Mickey slammed the trunk door closed and spun around, scanning up and down the empty street, but he saw no one. A few cars were parked along the curb. Half of the houses looked abandoned. Luckily, the trunk of the Oldsmobile was deep enough that no one potentially peering out of any windows would have seen anything, not unless they were standing right behind Mickey or Ian.

He heard the sound of gagging and turned to see Ian crouched in the shadows between the back tire of the car and the curb, dry-heaving onto the scraggly grass. Mickey moved to shield him somewhat, waiting until he swallowed and wiped a hand shakily at his mouth.

He straightened and looked in Mickey’s direction, but Mickey didn’t think he was actually seeing him. Ian’s eyes looked far away. His mouth hung open slackly.

“Ian,” Mickey said. He wrapped his hands around Ian's arms at the elbows. He could feel Ian trembling minutely. “Ian, look at me.” He shook Ian lightly, until his head lolled slightly and his gaze drifted away. “Get back in the car.”

Ian didn’t make a sound, resisting for a moment, his eyebrows furrowing, as Mickey tugged him. He gave in suddenly and let himself be led docilely back toward the front of the car.

Feeling an urgency borne of panic settle into his chest, Mickey opened the door and gently nudged Ian inside. Ian folded himself into the front seat, moving like a sleepwalker.

Mickey hesitated with his hand still on Ian’s shoulder. He didn’t like the flat, dead look in Ian’s eye, but he didn’t know what to do about it.

It also reminded him there was an actual dead person in the trunk that needed to be dealt with. He shut the door and leaned against the side of the car, pulling out his phone.

When Ronnie answered, Mickey felt both becalmed and more panicked, the combination of which made him feel slightly sick.

“What’s up, Mick?” Ronnie asked mildly.

“Um.” Mickey glanced at the closed trunk. “We’ve got a situation in Aurora.”

Ronnie was silent, waiting. Finally, he said, “You’re going to have to give me more than that, kid.”

Mickey thought that eventually, the more this crazy shit kept happening, he should develop some kind of protective, desensitized shell. At the very least, he should have an easier time describing something as horrible as a mutilated body left like a surprise birthday gift in the trunk of his brother’s car.

Times being what they were, it took Mickey a second to gather his thoughts into a sentence that wasn’t total nonsense. He decided to just take it from the top.

“I’m out here with Ian visiting his sisters, and when we got back to Colin’s car, there was a body in the trunk. Somebody put her in there while we were inside, I think,” Mickey said. He had difficulty hearing his own shaky words over the hammering of his heart. “She doesn’t have any eyes, Ronnie. Like, they’ve been cut out of her head. And I don’t know how long she’s been in there, I mean, I got the car from Colin this afternoon, after I helped get the cleaning ready at your place, but we were in Ian’s sister’s house for an hour, tops, and when we got outside, the trunk was kind of open and then…” Even though he tried to keep his voice low, he could feel it start to peak with hysteria toward the end.

If there was one thing Mickey loved about his uncle, it was his ability to avoid getting bogged down by the nonessential, even in the most outrageous of situations, taking things at face value and moving inexorably toward a solution. He didn’t even bother to ask for more information about the body before he was moving on to bossing Mickey around.

“Mickey, are you in the car now?” His voice was measured.

“No, Ian is. I’m standing outside. I wanted to…I don’t really know what to do.”

“Okay, Mick, it’s okay,” Ronnie said. “Here’s what you’re going to do. Get in the car.” He paused, like he was waiting for Mickey to follow his instructions. Not really having any other options, Mickey walked around to the driver’s side and got in.

Beside him, Ian was staring blankly at the windshield, the mysterious folder at his feet, Tupperware of chocolate chip-pretzel cookies forgotten on the dashboard.

“I’m in the car,” Mickey told his uncle.

“Good,” Ronnie said. “You said you’re in Aurora?”

“Yeah,” Mickey said. “Right after you get off I-88.”

Ronnie considered this for a moment. “There’s an abandoned rail line that runs along the Fox River. You’re going to drive there and dump the body.”

Mickey swallowed, putting the key in the ignition. It was more or less what he expected his uncle to say, but it still made his mouth go dry.

“Mick?” his uncle said in his ear. “You still there?”

“Yeah,” Mickey said. “I’m still here.”

Ian stirred, turning slowly to look at Mickey as the car rumbled to life. He blinked. “Mickey. Where are we going?”

“You know the quarry you drive by on I-88?” Ronnie was saying, and Mickey held up a hand telling Ian to wait while he listened. “If you head up past it toward North Aurora, there’s a forest preserve right along the tracks, off of Highway 31. You’re going to need to put the body in somewhere along there.”

Mickey could picture most of what Ronnie was describing. They’d done a job or two out in North Aurora before. “I got it,” he said.

“Don’t hang up,” Ronnie said. “Just put the phone down while you drive and then let me know when you get there. I’ll just wait.”

He wasn’t sure how his uncle knew that would comfort Mickey as much as it did, but knowing Ronnie was patiently, placidly waiting on the phone on the center console made it possible for Mickey to put his foot on the gas and start to drive.

Ian reached out and touched Mickey’s elbow with the tips of his fingers. “Mick, what are we doing?”

“We’re taking care of the girl in the trunk,” Mickey said. Ian frowned, but he didn’t argue. It still seemed like he was looking at and talking to Mickey through some sort of veil.

Ian sat back against his seat, and Mickey took them away from Fiona’s neighborhood and headed north. He felt himself enter a kind of fugue state, moving onward just to get it over with, repeating his uncle's direction over in his head like a mantra. Get to the forest preserve. Park by the river. Dump the body. Drive home. It sounded so simple in list form.

It took about thirty minutes to find the forest preserve Ronnie had mentioned. It made Mickey jittery to see all the housing developments and mid-day traffic as they drove by. He would’ve preferred to see no one, and to drop the dead girl off in the middle of nowhere, with no possible chances of witnesses. It didn’t seem like they’d have that option, though, and he had to assume the asshole that had he put her in the trunk in the first place had also taken their lack of options into account.

Ian was silent until Mickey slowed to enter the forest preserve, easing over a speed bump as they wound their way through the property. He glanced out his window. “Mick, where are we?”

“We’re still in Aurora, well, North Aurora.” He reached out and squeezed Ian’s knee. “Just hold on, man, we’re almost there.”

They passed a few cars also meandering through the forest preserve. Luckily it was an afternoon on a weekday, so most of the people at the preserve seemed to be moms and young kids. He couldn’t even imagine what they would’ve done if it had been warmer out, or god forbid, a Saturday.

Mickey could see the Fox River peeking through the nearly naked fall trees as they drove, and began edging his way closer at every fork in the road. Finally, he saw a maintenance driveway that seemed to run along the river itself and veered off onto the gravel road, noting with satisfaction that it seemed completely deserted.

He didn’t see any county police or forest preserve vehicles, but he knew it was probably only a matter of time.

Driving the Oldsmobile as far onto the bank of the river as he could, he found a point where the bluff between the shore and the river was only a few feet. He put the car in park and picked up his phone again.

“We’re here,” he told his uncle.

His uncle began giving instructions immediately, and Mickey had never been more happy to let his uncle tell him what to do. “Okay, kid, I know I don’t have to tell you that there’s a time element here. When you’re sure there’s no one around, that there's not even the possibility of anyone being around, get out of the car, get the body out and put it in the river and drive out of the preserve as quickly as you can. Is it wrapped in anything?”

It took Mickey a second to remember. “Yeah, a black tarp, I think.”

“That’s good,” Ronnie said. “Make sure you don’t touch the body. Keep your hands on the tarp, use that to move it, and make sure you take the tarp with you. When you get back to the city, we’ll destroy the car. I got a guy who’ll take care of the scrap.”

“Okay.” Mickey looked at Ian, who was watching him more suspiciously now. Mickey was glad to see the haze had seemed to recede from Ian’s expression, at least. “Okay.”

“Don’t hang up. Put the phone in your pocket and let me know when you’re done.” Ronnie didn’t sound anxious, but he was speaking rapidly. “Be quick, Mick.”

Mickey unbuckled his seat belt and turned in his seat to face Ian. “Alright. I’m going to need your help here, man.” He opened his door and got out, and heard Ian following him. He went to the trunk, scanning the bank of the river where they had parked for other people or cars, but they were alone.

Ian came to stand beside him, staring down at the trunk. “What are we doing, Mick?” He seemed to see the river in front of them for the first time. “Is that…are we at the DuPage River?”

“Fox River,” Mickey corrected, and went to pop open the trunk.

The poor dead girl was still there, right where they had left her. She had dyed red hair, the roots dark and overgrown. She was pale, paler even than Ian or Mickey, and her hands were clenched into claws. She had on baggy jeans and a navy T-shirt, and that casual ensemble, almost more than the horrible emptiness where her eyes had been, made Mickey feel sick again.

Spurred on by his uncle’s words to hurry, he reached down to grab half of the tarp, using it to pull the body up. Beside him, Ian mirrored his actions, pulling at the tarp until the body was nearly out of the trunk. The girl was small and light, but the rigidity of her body made it somewhat awkward to move her. Her foot caught on the edge of the trunk and Ian had to maneuver a little to ease her free.

“Okay, Ian, when we toss her into the water, make sure you keep a grip on the tarp, Ronnie says we need to take it with us.”

The reality of what they were obviously about to do seemed to hit Ian all at once. He let go of the tarp, the girl sliding back into the trunk a little, and took a jerky step back.

“Wait, fuck, wait a minute,” he protested. “We can’t put her in the river.”

Mickey glared at him. “Why the hell can’t we, Ian? What the fuck else are we going to do, drive around with her in Colin’s trunk for the rest of our lives?”

Ian bit his lip, and Mickey wanted to touch him, to put a hand on his forearm or shoulder, soothe him somehow. He resisted, because as much as he wanted to comfort Ian when he looked so bewildered and scared, he wanted to protect him even more.

“Ian, we need to get rid of her,” he said, softening his voice. His hands were still clenched in the thick plastic of the tarp. He tried to ignore how close he was to the dead girl, how if he flexed his pinkie he would be brushing against her neck.

“But what if no one finds her?” Ian said, keeping his words to a harsh whisper that somehow felt louder than a yell in the silent stillness of the forest preserve. “What if her family doesn’t know she’s missing? What if she washes up in fucking Oswego or Carpentersville and no one knows who she is? What if she never washes up? What then, Mickey?”

Ian wasn’t crying yet, not exactly, but his voice sounded wet. He took a step closer to Mickey, his eyebrows furrowed, his entire face stretched into a pleading shape.

“She’s a person, Mick,” Ian said. “She’s just some person who got fucking killed because of me, and I can’t just leave her to decompose at the bottom of a river, man, I can’t do it.”

Ian crossed his arms, his shoulders shuddering, and this time Mickey did give in and touch him. He let go of the tarp and moved to set both hands on Ian’s shoulders, gently squeezing the tense muscles there. He stared Ian in the eye, and seeing Ian’s determination, Mickey exhaled slowly.

He took one hand off of Ian and took the phone out of his pocket and put it to his ear. “Did you hear any of that?” he asked his uncle.

Ronnie sighed gustily from his end of the phone. “I sure did.” There was the sound of people in the back, what Mickey thought might be Colin’s voice, or maybe one of Ronnie’s other guys, muttering about something. “I don’t know what to say here, kiddo. You need to get rid of this body. The river’s the best way to do it.” If he was another man, Mickey would’ve thought Ronnie sounded helpless, but he couldn’t think of his uncle that way, especially not right now.

“What do you want to do?” Ronnie asked him.

Mickey turned to Ian. “What do you want to do?” he parroted his uncle’s words.

“I want to call the cops,” Iansaid. Even though he still looked terrified, his chin jutted out stubbornly. “We need to tell someone about her.” Ian reached up and covered Mickey’s hand on Ian’s shoulder with his own. He looked at Mickey imploring. “She’s a person, Mick.”

Mickey looked down at the girl in the trunk again. It was hard to tell how old she was. Mickey had never really realized how much eyes aged a person, but now, without them, the girl could be fifteen or she could be thirty. She was small and elfin and the toes of her red Keds were scuffed. Her mouth was hanging open in a small, delicate O.

“Goddamnit,” he said. He looked at Ian as he spoke to his uncle. “We need to call the cops.”

Ronnie made an impressively restrained noise of intense disapproval. “There are not enough words to describe what a bad idea I think that is.”

“I know,” Mickey said. He glanced behind him, then up the maintenance road again. They were taking too much time, he knew it.

“Well, get her out of the trunk at least. She can’t stay there, for the love of god.” Mickey could practically see Ronnie squeezing the bridge of his nose and shaking his head. “Leave the body next to the riverbank and get out of the preserve. Call it in when you’re on the road, and we’ll destroy your phone tonight when we’re taking care of the car.”

Fuck, Mickey had just gotten the new burner that afternoon on his way to pick up Ian. There went fifty bucks he’d never see again, he bitched inanely, even though there were obviously much bigger fish to fry at this point.

“Roger that,” Mickey said.

“And please, I’m begging you, just hurry the fuck up, and call me when you’re close to the city again.” Ronnie hung up.

Mickey put the phone in his pocket again. “Alright, we can leave her on the grass in the shade over there and then go and call it in. That work for you, princess?”

Ian nodded. He seemed alert, like himself again, and Mickey was glad. “Fuck. Okay, let’s make a move.”

It was awkward work, made worse by the way both Mickey and Ian were shaky and nervous. They yanked on the tarp and carried the dead girl between them, her stiff body swaying gently like a bag of laundry between them as they hurried to the riverbank.

They set her gently in the grass underneath some overgrown brush at the base of a tall maple tree. Ian looked at Mickey.

“One, two, three,” Mickey said, and they pulled the tarp free.

Mickey was put in mind of a table magician ripping away a tablecloth while keeping the dishes and cutlery standing on the empty table. The body rolled a little, then settled so the girl was on her back again. They both stared at her for a single, endless-seeming moment, then Mickey touched Ian's arm and they turned away together.

Gingerly folding the tarp so he didn’t touch where the dead girl had touched, Mickey balled up the plastic and they hurried back to the car. His heart was beating so hard it felt like the onset of a heart attack, and he couldn’t stop his head from constantly swiveling, waiting for a cop to pop out of the trees and arrest them.

There was no one, though, in the weirdest, most unexpected piece of extended luck they’d had in a while, and Mickey tried not to accelerate too hard as they drove back out the maintenance road and into the main preserve again. Gravel still spat out from his tires, and as soon as they pulled out of the property (Mickey taking a moment to take note of the name of the preserve for his 911 call once they were on the road), he kept them on back roads until they were on the highway again.

Mickey exhaled loudly as he merged into traffic. “Fuck.” He looked quickly at Ian, who was white and staring at the windshield again. “Holy fuck, Ian.”

“Mickey, that’s the third dead girl I’ve found.” Ian sounded dazed. Mickey couldn’t blame him.

“I know, man.” They came to a temporary bottleneck of traffic caused by construction and Mickey was oddly comforted to be banked on both sides by cars and their drivers. It felt nice to be surrounded, even if it was strangers. “What the hell.” He wasn't talking about the traffic.

“What the hell,” Ian echoed, assumedly in agreement.

Mickey looked at where Ian’s hands were clenched on his knees, his knuckles white, and automatically reached across and held the hand closest to his in a tight and most likely painful grip. Ian twisted his palm up and held Mickey’s hand back just as tightly.

Neither spoke for the next twenty minutes, until traffic eased and they were speeding toward the city again.

Finally, regretfully, Mickey pulled his hand away and took out his phone. He dialed 911, telling the detached-sounding operator on the other end that there was a dead girl in the Les Arends County Forest Preserve on the Fox River, and hung up when the guy asked Mickey for his name and phone number. Then he called Ronnie, speaking as soon as his uncle said hello. “We’re about thirty minutes out,” he said.

“Good,” Ronnie said. “How you kids doing?”

“Pretty fucking terrible,” Mickey admitted, and then for some reason, potentially because of the outrageous understatement inherent in those words, he found himself laughing. He let his head fall against the headrest, weak giggles working their way out of his throat. He could feel Ian looking at him, and he knew he must look and sound like a maniac, but he couldn’t stop.

“It’s gonna be okay, Mickey,” Ronnie said quietly. Mickey didn't know how his uncle could think those words, let alone say them out loud, but he appreciated the sentiment, he supposed.

Slowly, Mickey quieted. Ian reached over and touched his knee, and Mickey glanced at him apologetically. He couldn’t afford to fall apart right now. “I called it in. I don’t think anyone saw us at the forest preserve. Where do we go now?”

Ronnie gave him directions to an auto shop owned by someone who apparently owed Ronnie a favor. It was on the South Side, near Bridgeport.

The rest of the drive was mechanical and silent. Mickey drove slowly, more conscious than ever before of the need to obey the speed limit. Ian didn’t tease him about his geriatric speed, but he didn’t say much of anything else either.

Mickey couldn’t stop thinking of the thin, fragile shape of the eyeless girl reclining in the trunk, and the small, vulnerable shape she made in the shade of trees beside the river.

Ronnie and Colin were waiting for them outside the auto shop when Mickey rolled up. They directed him into the far right bay like air traffic controllers at O’Hare. Colin threw in a few bullshit third base coach hand signals, grinning crookedly, and Mickey flicked him off as he parked the car. Ian and Mickey got out, Mickey grabbing the balled-up tarp from the backseat.

Ian was holding the mystery folder and the container of cookies, and he came to stand at Mickey’s elbow like he didn’t want to wander too far away.

“Sounds like you guys had a fucker of a day,” Colin said. He noticed the container in Ian’s arms. “Shit, are those cookies?” Ian handed them to Colin without argument. Mickey felt a little repulsed as Colin dug in immediately. Mickey doubted he would ever be able to look at cookies the same way again.

As soon as Mickey and Ian were clear of the car, three guys from the shop swarmed the vehicle. They were dismantling the car before Mickey really realized what they were doing, detaching the hood to get at the battery and the engine, working silently.

A broad-chested man watched their progress carefully. He looked over at Ronnie. “I think we might be able to get this down to the crusher for the midnight batch, if we hustle.” Turning his gaze to Mickey, the broad-chested man smiled broadly and left his post overseeing the scrapping of the Oldsmobile. He walked over to stand by Mickey and his brother and uncle, Ian still hovering silently at Mickey’s shoulder like a shadow. “How’s it going, Mick? You remember me?”

“Nicky?” Mickey blinked in recognition. “Hey. Nicky.”

Nicky was an uncle-who-wasn’t-an-uncle, but who all the Milkovich kids had always been instructed to call an uncle, and Mickey had almost forgotten he owned an auto shop. It made sense, though. Mickey could vaguely recall a story where Ronnie loaned Nick five or six thousand dollars back in the day and didn’t raise hell when he ultimately was years late paying it back. Didn’t even charge him interest, as the legend went, which probably explained why Nicky was enthusiastically overseeing the de-construction of the Oldsmobile, no questions asked.

“It’s good to see you, Mick,” Nicky said, slapping a meaty hand on his shoulder with his characteristic lack of awareness of his own strength. Mickey stumbled a little under the force of the blow.

“You too, Nicky,” Mickey said, distracted. He glanced up at his uncle, who looked impassive, as usual. Mickey drank in the sight of him, his face that was somehow determined and confident even in the absence of any real expression.

If Ronnie hadn’t been on the end of the line, Mickey didn’t know if he’d been able to dispose of the body earlier so easily. He didn’t know if he’d be able to deal with everything that happened with Ian and the dead girls like he had, if he didn’t have Ronnie, if Ronnie didn't have the experience he had.

Mickey felt suddenly very young and extremely overwhelmed by what he and Ian had just done in North Aurora. Now that he had time to reflect, he was glad Ian had insisted on calling the police and leaving the girl outside the river. For some reason, he was sure the image of her small, delicate body, the empty holes where her eyes had been, would haunt him more than the thought of any of the dead girls so far.

Noticing Mickey’s stare, Ronnie looked at him. He held Mickey’s gaze, then nodded once, like he was acknowledging something Mickey had only said in his own mind, and turned back to the Oldsmobile.

Nicky smiled at Mickey, blissfully unaware of any other subtext. “Sorry to hear your car got tagged. Next time, just come in and we’ll look it over for you, make sure the lo-jack and license plate get switched out and the registration information is washed clean.” He winked conspiratorially at Ronnie. “No questions asked.”

Ronnie did not return his jovial banter. “Make sure your guys destroy everything. I don’t want to catch anything getting sold for scrap.”

Watching Nicky’s smile disappear as he nodded and hurried back to supervise the guys near the Oldsmobile, Mickey wondered if Ronnie was overreacting. He thought maybe, but it was nonetheless comforting to know his uncle was taking every possible precaution. Overreacting felt safe, somehow, in a world where you could go inside a house in the suburbs and come out to find a body in your trunk.

Colin was watching the car-stripping process mournfully. He stuffed another cookie in his mouth. “I’m really mad at you right now,” he told Mickey. “Me and that car have been through some shit together, man. She didn’t deserve to go out like this.”

With a thwap, Ronnie cuffed Colin over the head. “This is serious, Colin. You saying you’d rather put Mickey at risk so long as you could keep your shitbox of a car?”

“It wasn’t a shitbox,” Colin muttered testily, but seeing Ronnie’s stony expression, he sighed. “I know, I know.” He shoved Mickey lightly. “I’m really sorry about all of this, Mick. You too, Ian.”

Mickey sighed and shoved him back, keeping his arm pressed lightly against Ian’s side. “I’m sorry about your car, Colin.”

“It’s not your fault, man,” Colin said. He looked shrewdly at Ian, who was staring at the ground. “It’s not either of your guys’ fault.”

Taking the balled-up tarp from Mickey, Ronnie handed it to Colin. “Take this and burn it in the incinerator.” He eyed Mickey and Ian where they stood shoulder-to-shoulder near the wall. “We should burn your clothes too, just in the case. Mick, give me your phone. Is there anything else you should get rid of?”

Mickey shook his head. Ian was already pulling his shirt over his head and stepping out of his shoes obediently, standing in his boxers in the middle of the auto shop, looking like a pale skinny ghost. Mickey shrugged and followed his lead.

Ronnie tossed Mickey a backpack full of clothes. Most of it was Ronnie’s, so it hung shapelessly off Mickey’s smaller frame and stretched over Ian’s much broader shoulders. When they were dressed again, they looked at each other, and Ian cracked a smile for the first time since they’d left Fiona’s.

Mickey snorted. “You look like Steve Urkel.”

Ian rolled his eyes. “You look like a tax attorney.”

Ronnie gave them both a look. “You realize you’re wearing my clothes, right?”

Ian winced, reassessing Mickey's outfit. “You like a very, very stylish tax attorney,” he amended.

They followed Colin, who tore himself away from watching the Oldsmobile getting destroyed, and went down to the basement and threw their clothes, along with the tarp and Mickey’s phone, into the incinerator.

Colin turned it on, the pile of stuff inside alighting with a whoomf, and then clapped them both on the shoulder and went back upstairs. It smelled like shit in the basement, but Ian and Mickey stayed down to watch everything burn through the small glass window in the door until it was nothing but cinders.

“I need to get a new phone,” Ian said after a beat. “I need to call Lip. Fuck.”

Mickey watched him as he went to the bench in the corner, rifling around until he found a pad of paper and a pen, and copied a few numbers from his phone. When he was done, he came back and tossed the phone into the incinerator with the rest of their stuff.

Mickey reached out and ran a finger along the edge of the folder Ian was still clutching under one arm. “You need to tell me what the hell is in that thing, man.”

Ian glanced down, his eyebrows rising like he’d forgotten he was even holding it. He pressed it against Mickey’s chest. “Take a look. Not like it will be too shocking now.”

It was a stack of photos, all of Ian in varying scenes, taken from varying distances. He frowned, flipping through them, not understanding why Fiona had given them to Ian before they left.

“What am I looking at here, Ian?” he asked, pausing to study a shot of Ian jogging to cross the street.

“Pictures of me.” Ian didn’t look over, so he didn’t see Mickey roll his eyes at the obviousness of that comment. “There’s one of you in there too, I think it’s at the bottom.”

Mickey shuffled the photos around until he found the one Ian must’ve been talking about. Mickey felt cold looking at the two of them laughing together in the vestibule, unaware that they must've had their photos taken by the very security cameras Ronnie had made the super install around the building the week before.

He closed the folder again, not wanting to look anymore, not even wanting to touch the photos with his bare hands. “Jesus christ, Ian.”

Ian shrugged, staring at the flames of the incinerator. “That’s the reason Fiona’s been avoiding me. Someone was threatening me through her. And instead of fucking telling me what was going on, like a normal goddamn person, she fucking kept it to herself and made me think that she hated me and didn’t want anything to do with me anymore, because that’s mature, that’s what adults do, it was totally a good idea.” He kicked wrathfully at a dirty rag on the dusty floor next to the incinerator.

Mickey didn’t know what to say to all of that. The story was so new, he didn’t know how to organize it in his head. If nothing else, he could respect that Fiona had at least been cutting off Ian to protect him, instead of just cutting him off period. He was sure Ian didn’t feel that way, though, and he didn’t blame him.

At a loss, he wrapped an arm around Ian’s warm waist and pulled him close. Ian’s body went loose and he drooped against Mickey like his bones had turned to jelly, letting Mickey support most of his weight. In the horror that the afternoon had morphed into, it was comforting to feel Ian's warm body pressed against his.

Eventually, when they went back upstairs, to find the Oldsmobile already halfway to being nothing more than a car skeleton.

Ronnie was waiting for them at the top of the stairs. “You guys can head out now. Colin’ll drive you.” He nodded at where Colin was standing next to a dark blue sedan that was parked in the far bay. “We’re almost done here, and I’ll feel better once you two are at home.”

Mickey thought of the photo taken in the vestibule of the apartment. He didn’t think there was anywhere in Chicago they would technically be safe anymore. Or in the outlying suburbs either, apparently, he reminded himself grimly.

“Thanks,” he told his uncle. His throat worked as he swallowed. “For, you know—”

Reaching out to scrub a rough hand through Mickey’s hair, Ronnie pushed him toward Colin and the sedan. “Just get out of here. Take the night. We'll talk more tomorrow."

“Take it easy, Mickey!” Nicky called off, waving happily at them as Ian and Mickey got in the back seat together, ignoring Colin’s eye roll, and Colin backed out of the garage. Mickey tried to smile back, but it was difficult. He found himself incredibly jealous of not-Uncle Nicky’s easy grin. It made him mad that nearly everyone else in the world got to have a normal goddamn day, and he’d spent the afternoon disposing of a dead body in goddamn Aurora.

It was nearly nine at night by the time Colin pulled into the parking lot of their usual electronics phone to get new phones. Inside, Colin pushed Ian’s hands away when he went for his wallet and pulled out a wad of cash Mickey assumed Ronnie had given him for this exact purpose.

“Burners for everyone!” Colin said, trying to make his voice sound like Father Christmas, but Mickey couldn’t even muster up the goodwill to smirk at the attempt at levity.

Instead, they stood quietly in the vestibule to the store, watching Ian type in numbers he'd scribbled down on the scrap of paper with the auto shop logo on the top.

When Colin dropped them off at Mickey’s apartment, he was frowning, entirely serious in a way Mickey rarely saw his older brother get. He twisted around from the front seat to watch them as they got out of the car. “Make sure to call Ronnie when you get inside,” he told Mickey. “And maybe call me later, too. Fuck, just check in every few hours, okay? And be careful.”

Mickey nodded. “Thanks, Colin.” He tried to smile again, and this time he was moderately successful. “Sorry again about your car.”

Colin waved away his words. “She was too good for this world. Don’t worry about it.” He nodded at Ian. “Take it easy, Ian.” He waited for them to get inside the apartment building before driving away.

Once upstairs, Mickey opened the door for Ian and watched him wander over to collapse on the couch. Mickey locked the door and joined him, sitting close, wanting the contact.

“Thanks for taking care of everything today,” Ian said after a while. “I kind of went blank there earlier for a little bit. I don’t know what happened.”

“You don’t have to thank me,” Mickey said. He hooked a foot around Ian’s ankle. “Fuck, you shouldn’t be thanking me. It’s not like I’ve somehow managed to stop this asshole from terrorizing you. I’m fucking useless.”

Ian smacked his thigh lightly. “Don’t say that. You’re not.”

As Mickey prepared to argue back, there was a firm, familiar knock-knock-knock on the door. Mickey turned his head to stare at the door warily. Ian pulled at Mickey’s hand. “Don’t answer it.”

Mickey raised his eyebrow, considering. Finally he gave in and called out, “Who the fuck is it?”

“Police.” It was a woman’s voice, loud and authoritative. “Open up, Milkovich.”

“Shit, Mickey,” Ian was whispering, squeezing Mickey’s hand hard enough to hurt. “Shit.”

The policewoman at the door shouted again for him to open up, and Mickey found himself walking dumbly to the door, his feet crossing the distance almost without his consent. He wanted to refuse to open the door, but he knew better than anyone that ignoring the cops would probably make things worse at this point. He took brief, distracted comfort in the fact that the woman was just shouting his name, and if they were picking him up for the dead girl in Aurora already, at least they hadn't connected it to Ian yet.

When he opened the door, Mickey was filled with a numb lack of surprise to see Detective Johnson standing there, her lady cop partner and third unfamiliar officer flanking either side. She looked tired, but determined. Her hand was on her gun at her hip, just resting there, as she looked over Mickey’s shoulder at Ian, who had come to stand behind Mickey at the door. She nodded at him, then turned firmly back to Mickey.

“Hold out your hands, son,” Johnson told him.

“Detective Johnson, what—” Ian tried to argue, stepping forward, but Johnson shook her head at him, and when her partner moved to block his path completely, Ian went still. He looked helplessly at Mickey, who could only blink back dumbly.

“Hold out your hands," Johnson repeated to Mickey.

Too stunned to argue, Mickey held his wrists out obediently, and Johnson pulled her handcuffs out of her utility belt. She paused, watching Mickey for a minute.

“Mickey Milkovich.” Johnson said. She pulled one of Mickey’s hands behind his back, turning him to face the interior of his apartment, and snapped one of the cuffs over his wrist. Mickey allowed it mutely, even as she restrained his second wrist and his arms were behind his back. He felt like all the fight had officially left his body.

Johnson’s voice was measured, like she’d practiced the words she was about to say. “You’re under arrest for the murders of Harriet Harris and Felicia Ramirez.”

 

****

 

Ian never really understood why booking took so fucking long at police stations. It was surreal being on the other end of the process this time, actually being able to keep his phone and his wallet and not being handcuffed and led from room to room.

Weirdly enough, he felt more out of control waiting this way, rather than being the one arrested.

He couldn’t get the image of Mickey being led out of the apartment with his hands behind his back out of his head. He couldn’t stop thinking of Detective Johnson giving him a sad, grim look before walking Mickey down the stairs and guiding him into the cop car parked on the curb, its lights flashing.

It was past midnight. He’d hopped on the bus as soon as the cop car with Mickey had pulled away from the curb, but in reality, there had been no hurry. He'd rushed into the precinct in a fumbling hurry,but since then, he'd just been sitting for hours, his ass numb from the hard wooden bench, time seeming to stand still under the harsh fluorescent lights in the ceiling.

He’d called Colin while he was sitting on the bus, but it had gone to voicemail. He vaguely remembered mention of a late-night job tonight that Colin had needed to rush to after dropping Ian and Mickey back off at Mickey’s apartment. Now, Ian found himself wishing he had Ronnie’s number too.

He just needed someone else at this goddamn police station with him. Sitting through this alone made him feel like he was going insane.

He pulled out his phone, figuring he might as well call Lip, bringing him up to speed on the events of the day. It wasn’t like he didn’t have the time. He also maybe desperately wanted to hear his brother’s familiar, exasperated voice to ground him in the midst of all the unrelenting insanity.

“Hey Lip,” Ian said tiredly when Lip answered, sounding cranky like Ian had woken him up. “I wanted to let you know I saw Fiona and Debs today. They’re fine. I don’t think they’re going to make a break for it any time soon.” He debated launching right into the photos and the silent threats whoever was doing this had sent to Fiona. Oh yeah, and also the eyeless dead body from earlier. Ian bit back a wild laugh. His life was a train wreck.

A pair of cops bustled past, sending a rush of air in their wake, making Ian hunch his shoulders around the phone cupped at his ear.

For his part, Lip sounded irritated. “Ian? Where the fuck are you? I can barely hear anything you’re saying.”

“I’m at the police station. Mickey got arrested.”

“Arrested for what?”

Ian looked at the police officers milling around, the handful of miserable, tired people waiting on hard benches near him, and lowered his voice. “I can’t really talk about it right now, but I think they’re charging him for…” He tried to think of a euphemistic way to put it, then gave up and just whispered, “Harriet and Felicia.”

Lip let out a low whistle. “Fuck. That’s fucking serious.”

“No shit,” Ian said on a sigh. “I’m waiting it out, seeing if I hear anything before they move him if he actually gets arraigned, god forbid.”

There was a pointed silence. “There’s no reason for them to suspect him though, right Ian?”

Ian’s eyebrows shot up. “Something you want to ask me, Lip?”

Lip spoke all in a rush. “I’m just saying, it’s stupid not to look at all the angles, and if they had enough to arrest him on, maybe we wouldn’t be totally off base to consider maybe the asshole who’s doing all this was hiding in plain sight.” Lip went quiet, like he was bracing himself for Ian to explode. Which maybe Ian would’ve done, if he wasn’t already overwhelmed and exhausted and worried out his mind.

“Lip,” he said tiredly. “Have you killed three times in the past month?”

“Jesus, Ian, of course not—what?” There was a commotion, like Lip was standing up in a hurry. “Did you say three times? What the hell did I miss?”

Ian thought that it wasn’t for nothing that Lip was the smartest Gallagher, next to Debbie. It had been somewhat of a slip, mentioning the third murder, but Ian figured he might as well Band-Aid that shit early. “Yeah, the situation continues to evolve over here.”

“Fuck, what happened? Are you okay?” Lip sounded instantly panicked, and Ian felt a bloom of shame for throwing it in so casually.

“It’s…I can’t really talk about it right now. Let’s just say it was a nightmare. I’m living in a waking nightmare that has no end. Everything is terrible.” Ian scrubbed his hand roughly over his face. “But my point is, you’re just as likely a suspect as Mickey is, which means: not fucking likely at all. I know you’re not his biggest fan, but come on, man. He’s no more involved in all of this than you are. His only fault is being even partially connected to my fucking cursed, unlucky ass.”

It was such a familiar, aching feeling at this point, Ian found it easier to breathe through it if he remained blithe. He was putting everyone he knew at risk. No big deal. Mickey was sitting in a jail cell because of him. Whatever.

“I’m the one who should be in jail,” he said distractedly. Maybe he’d been a dumbass for resisting O’Reilly and Nowak before. Maybe he did belong in protective custody, but lose the protective. Another girl was dead because of him. He was a fucking menace. He was just as culpable as the psychopath doing all this.

“Goddamnit, Ian,” Lip bit out. His voice went soft. “None of this is your fault.” Ian let out a gusty breath, but Lip spoke over him. “Look, I’m sure Mickey’ll get sprung soon enough. Most of the evidence they have on him is circumstantial, I bet. I don’t really think he’s involved in this, I just…I had to cover my bases as Asshole Big Brother, you know?”

Ian huffed out a humorless laugh. “I guess.”

“Sit tight, okay? I’m on my way.”

“You don’t have to—”

“Oh my god, shut up you idiot, like I’d let you sit all alone in a fucking police station like a sad, ridiculous clown oozing guilt. God, you’re such a masochist sometimes.”

Before Ian could retort, Lip had hung up. Ian set the phone in his pocket. A rush of cold air whistled inside and he looked automatically to the entrance. Colin and Ronnie came striding in, and Ian almost sagged in relief at the sight of them.

“Hey, kiddo,” Ronnie said, and as Ian stood up to meet them, he was shocked when Ronnie swung a rough arm around his shoulders and drew Ian in for a short, tight side-hug. “Hear anything yet?”

“Um. No. I got here almost a while ago, but nothing yet.”

“You don’t know what the official charges are, do you?” Colin asked. He sat down heavily on the end of the bench where Ian had been. Ian sat down again beside him, but Ronnie stayed standing, his arms stiff at his sides.

“No,” Ian told them. “When he was arrested, they said it was for…they said it was for murder, for Felicia Ramirez and Harriet Bell, or Harris I guess her name is. Was.” He lowered his voice, leaning toward them. “I think the asshole’s trying to pin it on Mickey.”

Ronnie’s eyes tightened, but he didn’t appear surprised. He seemed to mull over Ian’s words. “Well, hopefully Mickey'll keep his mouth shut. I called my old lawyer, he’s driving up from southern Illinois, but he’s still a few hours out.” Ronnie looked away. “I’ll get coffee.” And then he was off, disappearing around the corner toward the vending machines.

Ian chewed at his nails, unaccountably more agitated now that Ronnie was gone.

“This is bad, Ian,” Colin said beside him. “I’ve never seen Ronnie like this. He’s worried.”

Looking at Colin, Ian saw he looked just as distressed, which was an obvious bad sign. Ian figured that if the combined time that Ronnie, Colin and Mickey had spent under arrest and in jail and juvie were conceptualized as a human child, it would be in at least the second grade. That meant if Ronnie and Colin were worried about this possible murder rap, Ian should be fucking terrified for Mickey.

He tried to think of the evidence the police might have. It was difficult to come up with anything, and he didn’t know if that was because he was so distracted by worry or if he was really too stupid to put the obvious pieces together.

An hour later, Ian’s distress hadn’t lessened, but it had taken on a weird, background-noise-level quality. Lip arrived forty-five minutes after he hung up with Ian, but he seemed exhausted and had conked out, leaning against Ian's side, despite valiantly attempting to comfort Ian for a while even as he eyes were drooping shut. Ian knew he'd just finished his last final that night. Eventually, he pressed Lip's head gently until he rested against Ian's shoulder, and nodded in satisfaction when he heard his brother start to snore.

It was a little like he was waiting for Mickey to give birth. He sat in the hallway with a cup of crappy coffee, biting his nails, a constant presence on the bench as Colin and Ronnie drifted restlessly in and out, asking him if he’d heard anything, when they reappeared.

“No word yet,” he said, on repeat, as the night bled into the early morning hours.

Throughout, Lip slept on, drooling on his shoulder. It was a lot more comforting than Ian would've have expected, having his older brother asleep next to him, but it kept him from pacing alongside Colin and Ronnie, which he appreciated. The fluorescent light stayed constant and yellow and Ian could only tell the passage of time through the slightly-cockeyed clock hanging high on the wall near the door.

Ian was especially unsettled by how restive Ronnie was, pacing up and down the waiting area, making endless trips to the coffee machine and out the door to take a lap around the block. His strides were still measured, his face calm and impassive, but he couldn’t sit still, and that more than anything wound Ian up tighter.

There was a lull between when Colin left to feed the meter on the car, Ronnie went to wrangle some coffee and Lip went to the bathroom, when Ian was alone, or as alone as you could be in a busy police station.

His phone rang. He frowned at it. He’d only given his number to Lip and Svetlana since buying it with Mickey earlier that night, or that was yesterday at this point, he supposed. As such, he didn’t recognize the number, because he’d only managed to save a handful of contacts into it before the chaos of Mickey’s arrest the night before had distracted him.

“Hello?” he said cautiously, thinking please don’t growl at me please don’t growl at me desperately in his head.

“Hi there, Ian.” Ned’s genial, affable voice filled Ian’s ear, and he sat back against the bench, confused.

“How did you get this number?” Ian actually pulled his phone away from his ear and looked at it, like he expected it to somehow explain. He put it back to his ear. “I got a new number this morning.”

Ned chuckled genially. “Well, I tried to call your old number but it was disconnected. You might want to try changing your phone number by more than just a couple numbers next time. It didn’t take too long to figure it out. I am an educated professional, Ian.”

“That’s just…incredibly creepy,” Ian said. He felt his mouth turning down into a half-moon shape. Back in the day, he’d been able to turn a blind eye on Ned’s weirder habits, but with the wisdom of distance and hindsight he found it increasingly difficult to remember how younger-him had ever been able to hang around with Ned without feeling like his skin was constantly crawling.

“I think creepy is a somewhat relative term,” Ned said. He didn’t sound too worried about it. “My son tells me you finally went out to see Fiona.”

Ian felt his heart turn over suddenly like a car engine at the sudden shift in subjects. “Steve? Or, I mean, Jimmy? Fuck, whatever we’re calling him these days.” He swallowed. “How did he know I went to go see Fiona?” It felt like years ago, sitting in Fiona’s house looking at pictures of himself that were taken by a possible stranger. It was hard to believe it was just the afternoon before.

Ned made a dismissing sound. “You know how those two are, can’t stay away from each other. Like a couple of dumb, reckless magnets.” There was a mechanical chirp in the background of the call, like Ned was working some loud, fancy machinery, Ian though maybe a cappuccino maker or something else equally bourgie and obscure. “Anyway, I’m glad to hear you two are making nice again.”

Ian winced internally, having always hated that phrase. His mind was also spinning at the knowledge that JimmySteveWhatever was aware he’d been out to see Fiona, and depending on timeline, that he might have possibly been aware even before were out there before Ian and Mickey had found the body in the trunk. Ian had dozens of memories of Steve hanging out at the old house, laughing with Fiona, holding little Liam, fitting seamlessly into the Gallagher brood, but the only image of Steve he could recall in his head at the moment was the memory of his tight, angry face outside of the grocery store when Ian had run into him weeks before, and it wasn't comforting.

“Where are you, anyway?” Ned asked, sounding curious. Ian blinked, refocusing on Ned’s voice. “It sounds loud.”

“It is loud. I’m at the police precinct, over in the thirteenth district.” He spoke carefully, hoping that if he was forthcoming, Ned might be too.

“Your boytoy get arrested or something?”

“How did you know that?” Ian resisted smacking himself on the head. He should've played that a little coyer.

He could almost hear Ned smiling through the phone. “Shot in the dark, but come on, Ian, even you have to admit it’s not outside the realm of possibility,” he said coolly. “Last time I saw that little thug, he was physically assaulting me. Again, well-educated adult, here, doesn't take much effort to connect the dots.” He paused, the sound of a spoon clinking against china ringing out. “What did they get him on?”

“Not sure yet,” Ian lied. “He hasn’t been arraigned.”

“From what I hear, you won’t have long to wait on that.”

Ian blanched. “What the hell are you talking about?” So Ned had already known Mickey had been arrested. The knowledge that Ned was just teasing him, passing the time toying with Ian’s anxiety while Ned sat in his fancy condo drinking frothy breakfast drinks made Ian officially lose his temper. “Why the fuck did you call me, Ned?”

“From what I hear, that boy of yours is dangerous. Is it so wrong that I might be worried about an old friend?”

“What do you mean, ‘from what you hear?’” Ian pressed. He doubted Ned would tell him anything he didn’t want to say, and Ian wasn’t feeling especially delicate enough to trick him into speaking out of turn, but he pushed anyway. “Do you have some kind of mole in the police station?”

“Is that jealousy I hear, Ian?” Ned sounded delighted. “I’ll have you know, just because we didn’t work out, doesn’t mean other men don’t find me attractive.” He chuckled. “Always had a soft spot for a man in uniform, even if it’s a bit of cliché.”

“For once, can you just answer a damn question?” Ian demanded. He felt the fingers of desperation scraping painfully inside his skin. He was tired of dancing around what was actually happening. He’d never been good at subterfuge. “Is this some kind of signal? Just tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it, just get Mickey out of jail.”

“What exactly are you offering?” Ned sounded interested, but also a little caught off guard.

“I don’t fucking know, whatever you want, I’m just done with this cat and mouse shit.”

Ned paused. “I don’t…are you saying you want me to find a lawyer? He’ll probably get someone appointed at arraignment.”

“No, not a lawyer, what are you talking about?” Ian leaned forward with his knees on his elbows, frustrated. “I want you to stop doing this, whatever you’re doing. You don’t have to go after Mickey, or anybody else, I’ll do what you want, if you just stop.” Ian’s voice broke, but he couldn’t hold it back. “Please,, Ned. Please, just stop.”

“Ian,” Ned said. “Calm down. Are you alright?” His signature suave tone had dropped somewhat, and he sounded more normal, more like the Ned that Ian remembered getting along with. “What’s going on? Tell me what’s going on.”

Ian went still. “What?”

Ned sighed heavily. “I didn’t meant to upset you by calling.” Then, after a moment, “Okay, maybe I meant to upset you a little, but mostly I just…I don’t know. I miss you, Ian. And then I see you again for the first time in almost a year and you’re with that little thug and he beats the shit out of me…when I heard he was arrested, maybe I wanted to savor the victory a little.”

Ian thought of the pictures sitting in the folder in Mickey’s apartment. “You hadn’t seen me in a year.”

“I know, time flies, doesn't it? You’ve definitely grown up, I’ll give you that.” There was a rueful tone to Ned’s voice. “Look, I’m sure Mickey will be fine. Tell him to shut up, don’t talk until he’s got counsel present, hopefully he’ll get off easy for whatever misdemeanor charge they’ve got him on, hotwiring a car or whatever it is kids from your neighborhood usually get busted for. Probably drugs, I guess.”

Staying silent was tough, but Ian forced himself to keep his mouth shut as he tried to parse what exactly Ned was saying. He knew Ned was a snake at worst, a casual liar at best, and if there was one thing Ian knew from his own parents, it was that liars lied. But Ned also sounded genuinely misguided, like his knowledge of Mickey’s arrest was indeed secondhand. If he had orchestrated it through the girl in the trunk, or if Steve had, wasn’t he laying it on a little thick by playing dumb? Ian didn’t know. He felt too tired for all of this.

“I have to go, Ned,” he said finally.

“Oh. Okay.” Ned sounded startled at the abrupt dismissal, but he recovered quickly enough. “Well, for what it’s worth, I hope your boy gets off. He was cute, in a violent sort of way. It was nice catching up." He hesitated, and then that more geniune note crept into his voice. "Take care of yourself, Ian.”

Ian hung up without saying good bye. He tried to decide if he believed anything Ned had said, if Ned was actually dating a police officer. Ian eyed every cop who walked by in a new light, wondering if they were the ones leaking information about Mickey to Ned.

Lip returned from the bathroom and threw himself on the bench beside Ian. "Fuck. I am fucking exhausted. I don't know how you're keeping your eyes open."

Ian shrugged, distracted. He wished he'd brought the folder of photos with him to show to Lip, to talk to him about what Fiona had told him, but they were back at Mickey's apartment and he hesitated to get into it without them. Otherwise it just sounded too crazy, he thought, or maybe he was stalling. Either way, he hedged.

"I think Fiona’s been talking to Steve again," he told Lip.

Lip rolled that information around silently, but he sound alarmed. "That’s annoying, I thought we were free of that schmuck."

Maybe he was being paranoid, Ian thought. Lip was right, and in a way so was Ned—just because Fiona had sounded finished with Steve when they’d spoken, didn’t mean the break was clean, the idea of her and Steve bouncing back and forth between each other like racquetballs not incredibly difficult to believe.

Lip slouched further down on the bench, carefully picking at a loose thread on his sweatshirt. "How did she seem?" He avoided Ian's eyes. "Fiona."

"She seemed okay. Tired. Cranky. Said she was staying away from us to protect us," Ian finished, testing the waters.

Lip snorted at that. "Sounds like her. Fucking martyr. How was Debbie?"

"Awesome." Thinking of Debbie, Ian smiled slightly. "She's tall now. Almost as bossy as Fiona."

"God help us all," Lip said, laughing. Ian let out a soft laugh too, and he was too distracted sharing this tiny, content moment with his brother to notice O’Reilly and Nowak coming in through the front hallway to start their shift until O’Reilly was standing in front of him.

“Hey there, Red,” O’Reilly said, smiling that goddamn broad grin of his. “Heard a story about you. Well, not about you so much, more like your boyfriend.”

Ian sat forward and put his face in his hands. He prayed for death, disaster, anything really, to save him from this interaction. He felt barely on the edge of control after his call from Ned, and the residual tension building in his body felt ready to boil over.

“Go fuck yourself,” he muttered into the palms of his hands.

Lip went tense beside him. "Jesus, Ian, chill."

Ian heard rather than saw O’Reilly step closer. Ian pulled his hands down and looked at the cop of the cage of his fingers. O’Reilly’s grin had gone sharp like a shark’s.

“You got something to say to me, Gallagher?”

“I’m just…you really gross me out, on a deep, emotional level,” Ian said, even though he knew technically that hadn’t been what he had said. His voice sounded venomous to his own ear.

Lip actually tried to slap his hand over Ian's mouth, but Ian swatted his hand away. "Ian, remember where you are. Remember why you're here," he said through his teeth. He was watching O'Reilly warily, like he was looking at a wild animal that was slowly creeping closer.

Ian didn't feel the same wave of caution Lip seemed to be experiencing. Instead, he was hit with the urge to hurt. He wanted to kill Ned, and probably Steve, and with O’Reilly right in front of him, he felt that dangerous drive rising like a tide, because he'd settle for O'Reilly for now.

O’Reilly’s eyes had bulged at Ian's words in a way that looked painful, his smile dropping. “The fuck you just say to me, asshole?” He stepped forward sharply, and Ian would feel menaced, if he wasn’t so exhausted and categorically done with this shit. The seething hatred he felt staring at O’Reilly’s pale face also made him feel bold.

“You’re fucking pathetic, you know that? Fucking harassing me because your own deep-seated self-hatred or whatever, when girls are there getting killed.” In a distant, abstract way, Ian knew he would probably regret his nerve later, but for now, the words wouldn’t stop coming. “Go to a gay bar, find some twink who’s in to being dominated and take him home, like a normal person, just leave me, my family, my friends, just leave us all the fuck alone, jesus.”

It was almost comical how shocked O’Reilly looked for a moment. Then it shifted, and he was stepping closer, reaching to grab for Ian’s shirt, who was still sitting, even as Lip shot to his feet to try and intercept him. “You little shit—”

In his mind’s eye, Ian could already envision O’Reilly beating him to death in the middle of the police station. Maybe this was how it ended, he figured dazedly. It had been a good run, at least.

A sharp, commanding voice cut through the air. “Hey now.” Lip and Ian froze at the authoritative tone, and even O'Reilly gave a moment of pause.

Ronnie was coming around the corner, two cups of coffee in his hand, eyes fixed on O’Reilly’s rage-red face. He seemed to have heard most of the altercation. “Last I checked, mouthing off wasn’t a criminal offense punishable by an ass-whooping. At least not legally.”

O’Reilly seemed to disagree. By that point, Nowak came back from where he’d been chatting with the receptionist and put his hand on O’Reilly’s shoulder. “You good, man?”

O'Reilly leaned down so his face was near to Ian's, ignoring Lip's swearing protest and Ronnie's disapproving look. “Your fucking boyfriend’s going away for a long time, so I hope you fucked him enough to make some memories,” O’Reilly bit out under his breath.

“Hey now,” Ronnie said again. Ian didn’t know how Ronnie moved so quickly, but he was in front of Ian now, nudging Lip aside and staring at O’Reilly. Ronnie was nearly as tall as the cop, and it was a stand-off for a few minutes, until O’Reilly swore and shouldered his way past, knocking roughly into Ronnie. He glared at Ian as he went. “You better fucking watch it.”

“Not his best line,” Ian said under his breath. He looked up at Ronnie, who was still looming and staring after O’Reilly.

He seemed to blink and remember Ian was beside him. “You okay, kiddo?”

Lip squeezed Ian's shoulder. "Jesus, are you some kind of adrenaline junkie? Are you out of your mind?"

Ian tried not to let it show how shaken he was. With the rush of seething anger beginning to recede, he felt the curls of regret at putting himself so squarely on O’Reilly’s shitlist rise yet again. He also tried to ignore what O’Reilly had said about Ian fucking Mickey in front of Mickey’s uncle. It was probably a nonsense concern at this point, but Ian still felt a flush on his cheeks.

“I’m fine, I guess,” he said. He took the coffee Ronnie offered him and waited until Ronnie sat down for the first time in over an hour. “I’m just really worried about Mickey.”

“Me too, kid,” Ronnie said. He sighed, and Ian hated the sound. He hated knowing that Ronnie was nervous too, because it just confirmed that there really, honestly was something to be nervous for. "This is my fault. I should've been more involved from the start, as soon as Mickey told me what was going on."

Ian went to argue, but Lip beat him to it. "I think we're kidding ourselves if we think any of us could've stopped this. I mean, this asshole's crazy. We're not. He's kind of got the jump on us." When Ronnie turned and looked pensively at Lip, Ian almost grinned to see Lip gulp. "Well. That's just my opinion. Sir."

Ronnie raised his eyebrows. "It's not the worst opinion I've ever heard."

Ian turned from the supremely odd scene of Lip beaming slightly at Ronnie's approval, and watched the rest of the cops coming on shift as they dispersed into the deeper offices within the police station. Tony was among them, which made sense. Ian knew he usually worked nights. He was idly scanning the hallway as he headed back toward his desk when he caught sight of Ian. Tony grimaced, waving awkwardly.

Ian tried to smile back. He was sure it looked more like a grimace than Tony's actual grimace. Tony held his eye for a while, like he was trying to convey his sympathy with silent, imploring eyebrows. He must’ve heard about Mickey’s arrest just like O’Reilly and Nowak had.

Tony was probably trying to help, to show his support, but when Ian saw Tony, he just saw someone else who probably thought Mickey was guilty, while the real serial killer was just walking out free. It made Ian feel like hurting someone again, and he had to restrain himself from frowning on purpose at Tony in return. Tony seemed to notice the shift anyway, and looked troubled. He raised his hand in a silent wave, and Ian thought he didn’t have time to try and spare this idiot’s feelings. He wasn’t here for it.

So Ian turned away from Tony, hunching his shoulders down beside Ronnie, and settled in to wait for news about Mickey.

 

****

 

It was a niche concern, but Mickey seriously hated getting fingerprinted because the fucking ink never really came off. He’d been photographed and fingerprinted hours ago and no matter how hard he rubbed the tips of his fingers against his jeans, the dark stain of the ink stubbornly remained.

It wasn’t the first time Mickey had been arrested. Far from it. He’d done his tour of duty in juvie, back in the day. He’d been arrested three…no, four, he’d been arrested four times in the past year alone, if he was counting the quickie catch and release for driving on a suspended license in January, which he was, because it had been a complete and total pain in the ass, and Colin had given him shit about it for weeks.

He’d been interrogated for borderline serious crimes before, mostly drug stuff, but also once by an overzealous recently-elected county prosecutor who wanted to make a name for himself by going after a relative of a former mafia kingpin like Ronnie, even if Ronnie hadn’t technically been part of a large-scale organized crime syndicate since 1994.

But the bottom line was that Mickey knew he could hack it in lockup, if he had to. It was boring as shit, and he always had that panicky moment where he thought this was it, he was being put away for life, he was mere days away from turning nineteen and now he was going to spend the rest of his life behind bars, but then a cool, calm part of his brain would always intervene and he’d hunker down mentally, ready to wait it out.

So this wasn’t his first rodeo, sitting in an interrogation room at the precinct. But it was also the first time he was over eighteen and facing some serious time.

They’d brought him into interrogation a while ago, but he wasn’t sure how much time had passed. He didn’t have his phone. There was no clock near the main holding cell, or in the room where he now sat against the hard metal chair, waiting for a cop to remember he'd been put there.

When an office he didn’t recognize breezed in, finally, after what might have been hours or days or possibly a full moon cycle, it was the first thing he asked. “How fucking long have I been sitting here?”

The cop, a short, stern-looking woman, gave him a look, then checked her watch. “About eight hours, I’d say.” She held up a clipboard. “I’m here to confirm you biometric data so we can finish your processing. Where were October seventeenth, around nine-thirty?”

Mickey snorted. “Nice try. Unless they’ve somehow redefined the meaning of ‘biometric’, I’m going to go ahead and remain silent,” he said.

The cop raised both eyebrows. “Are you, now.” She didn't seem surprised that he'd caught on. Mickey thought the tactic must work sometimes, with dumber prisoners. He just wasn't down for that shit. Again: not his first rodeo.

“Yep. And I’m not saying another word until I talk to my lawyer first.” That one was more of a hail mary, he wasn’t one hundred percent that his uncle’s old mafia lawyer was even still on retainer, but it was worth a shot.

“I guess you might not be the dumbest perp we’ve ever collared. I’ll have to let Detective Johnson know,” she said. She got up from the metal chair and glanced at the two-way mirror. Mickey flicked off his reflection, hoping Johnson was watching right now. The cop in front of him shook her head as she gathered her file. “You got someone you want us to call specifically?”

Mickey was a little surprised at the courtesy. He knew that technically, they could screw him around until the bell tolled on the twenty-four hour mark, claiming his lawyer wasn’t answering or the paperwork was slow. He hoped to god Ian had told Colin at least, and Ronnie had already gotten in touch with the lawyer himself.

When he gave the cop his uncle’s lawyer's contact information, he expected to be taken back to holding while he waited. But he seemed to be playing a hot streak, or Ronnie must’ve called the guy earlier (more likely, Mickey's luck was so bad he felt like a professional casino Cooler), because he was only in the room another twenty minutes before the heavy door swung open and shut again.

“Hey, Mick.” It was Lou, his uncle’s lawyer, and Mickey had never been more grateful to set eyes upon the unscrupulous asshole before in his life.

“How’s it going,” Mickey said, voice weak with relief.

It had been nearly five years since Mickey had seen him, but Lou looked largely the same—harried, over-worked, constantly on the verge of springing a new ulcer. Where Ronnie was stoic like a cool, impenetrable Ukrainian forest, Lou was a hyperactive New York nut job, and he normally made Mickey anxious just by being in the room. Right now though, anything was better than another cop trying to trick him into incriminating himself like some amateur.

Lou sat down beside him at the metal table. “Well son, it’s going better for me than it is for you, I think it’s safe to say.” He ran the back of his hand over his gleaming forehead. Lou was always sweating. “What the hell did you get yourself into, Mick?”

Mickey put his hands flat on the table. “This time,based on what I assume they're trying to charge me with, I can honestly say: nothing.”

Lou tilted his head, squinting at him. “As your legal counsel, I’m just going to remind you that there’s no need to lie to me.” He glanced at the twin video cameras vaulted into the corners where the walls met the ceiling. “They’re recording, but there’s no audio. That’s one thing you can count on in a police station in Chicago, at least.”

Mickey rubbed at the crown of his head where a vicious headache was brewing. “I’m serious, Lou. I don’t know what kind of evidence they’ve got on me right now, and it probably looks bad, but I think think someone's trying to set me up.”

Rolling his eyes expansively, Lou set his briefcase on his lap and startled rifling through the papers inside. “Son, you’re killing me here. Whether or not you did shit, that line.” He shuddered. “You’re better than that.”

Mickey could only shrug. It was the truth, he thought, and the longer the cops were fixated on Mickey, the more time they were fucking wasting. The only saving grace seemed to be that they weren’t trying to connect him to the poor eyeless girl in Aurora yet, which was something, he supposed. Lou was watching him.

“Well Mickey, you want the good news or the bad news?” Mickey raised his eyebrows, honestly nonplussed. Lou checked a sheath of papers in his briefcase, then looked back at Mickey. “Good news is, I think I can get you out of here tonight. They want to arraign you, but it looks like they got ahead of themselves and took you in before they’d locked down all their evidence.”

Mickey felt a little breathless. “Wait. I can go?”

“Not yet, I need to square away from paperwork, and we need to make sure the DA isn’t going to come in and cause trouble, but it’s looking that way.”

Mickey threw his hands in the air. It was all he could do not to haul off and slug Lou in the neck. “Jesus, Lou, why the fuck wouldn’t you lead with that, goddamnit!”

“Because it’s a Band-Aid, Mick,” Loud said tiredly. “They fucked up this time, but that means next time they’re coming for you, they’re going to come for you twice as hard. Even if you go home today, you’re still a suspect. No question.”

“Yeah, but are they looking at anyone else?” Mickey had to know. If they were focusing all their resources on looking into him, that meant the actual asshole was free as a bird to terrorize Ian as much as he wanted to, which was Mickey's biggest concern.

“Son, I don’t think you understand the severity of these charges,” Lou said.

Mickey stood up. “I don’t think you understand, actually. I, on the other hand, definitely understand. Trust me.”

Lou left Mickey in the interrogation room briefly, Mickey assumed to argue with some cops, and a while later, when Mickey felt ready to climb out of his own body, he returned. “You’re sprung, son. For now.”

Mickey purposefully ignored Lou's dour, foreboding tone and followed him out into the main waiting room of the police station. He didn’t see Johnson on his way out, but most of the cops they passed stared as he walked by, like they knew what he had been arrested for. It was like walking by a cage full of hungry dogs. Mickey tried to will himself not to sweat.

Colin and Ronnie and Ian were all standing in a tense little circle by the front desk. Mickey was surprised to see Lip lingering nearby, eyes puffy and red as he leaned against the wall half-asleep. As soon as Mickey rounded the corner with Lou, Colin and Ronnie rushed to meet him, Ronnie pulling him into a tight, brief hug, Colin chattering about how Mickey was lucky like a goddamn charm. He was happy Colin and Ronnie were there, and it was comforting to be with his family again, but all Mickey could see was Ian’s pale, strained face.

He stepped closer, lowering his voice. “Hey, I’m okay.” He dared to put a hand on Ian’s shoulder. “I promise. Everything’s okay.” He watched Ian bite his lip, staying silent. He looked ready to fall apart.

Ronnie cut in. “Unfortunately, Mick, I think that’s where you’re wrong. Thing’s are far from okay.”

From where he still stood beside Mickey, Lou heaved a loud, anxious sigh. “I tried to tell him that, too.” He shared a meaningful glance with Ronnie that Mickey only caught out of the corner of his eye, still staring at Ian, who had stepped close enough that they were practically hip to hip.

"I'm so sorry, Mickey," Ian said quietly, and Mickey suddenly wanted to get Ian out of the police station more than he could ever remember wanting anything.

“Can we just get the fuck out of here?” Mickey begged, appealing to Ronnie. He sounded as bleak as he felt. Ronnie nodded once, and they all walked outside. It was already mid-morning, the sun caught behind thick fall clouds, but Mickey still squinted in the sudden light. He relished the feeling of natural delight, even if it burned a little at first.

Lou the Lawyer pealed off toward a parking garage, promising to touch base with Ronnie later that afternoon. Lip turned at the corner toward the L station. He tugged at Ian's sleeve until Ian let Lip wrap him in a hug. He whispered something in Ian's ear Mickey didn't catch, then released Ian and speared Mickey with a glare. "Let's try and stay out of the metal motel for a while, huh, guys?" He whapped Ian lightly over the head. "Notice I said you guys. As in both of your idiots. Stay out of jail."

"You should listen to your brother," Ronnie called out over his shoulder, not even bothering to turn around, and Lip grinned triumphantly at Ian before spinning around to head toward the L station.

Mickey and Ian followed Colin and his uncle toward the dark sedan parked around the block. Mickey sat in the backseat with Ian, letting Ronnie and Colin talk idly in the front seat.

Ian put his hand on Mickey’s knee as Colin started the drive. “I feel like, collectively, we