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A New Normal

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Ian spent a lot of time these days thinking about just how bad he was at solving crime.

If he was on a baseball card, the stats on the back wouldn’t even be stats, they would just be a big, red: N/A. He didn’t think he’d ever be able to laugh at episodes of Scooby Doo ever again. The fact that those kids were able to collar the bad guy at the end of every episode was goddamn impressive. Ian was jealous. It wasn’t fair, they were just cartoons, he was a goddamn human being and he’d been too fucking stupid to see it coming, even though in hindsight it was so obvious, like a train hurtling down the tracks right at him while he was also standing on the tracks, only facing the other direction, back to the train about to run him over, humming innocently to himself, probably twiddling his thumbs like a fucking moron. All he’d had to do was turn around, and he would’ve seen Tony right in front of him.

It haunted him that Tony had likely been planning the entire killing spree for weeks, months, maybe even years, and Ian had no idea. He can’t help but wonder if someone else would’ve been able to tell sooner.

Ian thought about Harriet Bell and Felicia Ramirez and Bethany Constantine a lot. It went in ebbs and flows, but sometimes, at its worst, it was all he could think about. How their families must feel, knowing they’d been targeted for no other reason than some psychopath’s insane attempt to impress Ian, even if those details weren’t widely circulated to the public. He thought about the girls themselves, what they would be doing right now if they were still alive, if they’d ever had any vague, intuitive inkling that they’d never reach their twenties. 

It was morbid. Ian knew it was morbid. He couldn’t seem to stop himself, though.

“Ian,” Mickey said. He was sitting next to Ian on the couch, staring at Ian in consternation. Ian blinked, the living room around him coming back into focus.

Mickey was frowning, watching him in concern. He didn’t hover nearly as badly these days as in the first months after Ian had been released from the hospital, but it was a compulsion Mickey couldn’t really shake. Ian gave him a hard time about it, but it was mostly for show. He liked having Mickey anchor him back down. It was soothing.

Especially now, when Ian looked back at Mickey and honestly couldn’t remember what they had been doing, or what they’d been talking about, or if they had been talking. 

“Ian?” This time, Mickey leaned over enough that he was pressed tightly to Ian’s side on the couch. There was plenty of room on his other side, nearly an entire sofa cushion, but they always sat like this, pooled together in the middle like two pieces of driftwood.

“Hey,” Ian said faintly. “Sorry.”

“For what?” Mickey asked. He squeezed Ian’s knee, which made Ian jump a little. He hadn’t realized Mickey’s hand was on his leg, but it was, probably had been for an hour or so, since they first sat down to watch game shows.

“I don’t know,” Ian admitted. He gave in to temptation and rested his head on Mickey’s, sighing gustily. “Didn’t mean to drift.”

“What were you thinking about?” Mickey asked carefully, how he always did when he seemed to suspect Ian was thinking about the murders but he didn’t want to accidentally bring it up if, by some miracle, Ian had actually been distracted by something else. 

“Nothing,” Ian lied. He used to think he was a good liar, or at least decent enough to get Lip or Fiona to lay off his case. Maybe he still was, but whatever lying prowess he possessed Mickey seemed to be immune. 

“You need to learn to go easier on yourself,” Mickey said, seeing through Ian like a screen door, easily. He brought his legs up so his knees were high and nearly blocked the view of the TV. He curled up so he was slightly in Ian’s lap, and Ian leaned into it. 

He liked the way Mickey felt when he was close like this, soft and warm, smelling a little like the garlic he must’ve been cooking with earlier.

“I know,” Ian said.

“You’re allowed to let things go,” Mickey said.

Ian didn’t know if that was true. It felt like his duty, somehow, as the survivor of Tony’s spree, to act as the keeper of memories. He didn’t even know those girls, not really. How could he remember someone he’d never met? And yet, he felt obligated to think about each of them at least once a day. He was beset by guilt whenever he missed a day, no matter how much time he put between him and the entire hellish experience.

But one of the things Ian loved about Mickey, one of the many, countless, never-ending things, was that he could tell when Ian was brooding and too caught inside his own head to talk about it. It was a rare skill, because most people who knew Ian thought his propensity to chatter meant he loved talking about his feelings. Mickey was the only who understood talking was its own kind of smokescreen, though.

So rather than pester Ian to explain what he was agonizing over today, Mickey lifted his head, snuffled into the side of Ian’s neck, and kissed him. Then he nosed up behind his ear, worrying at the thin skin behind Ian’s ear with his teeth until Ian went completely still except for the movement of his throat as he swallowed.

Mickey sighed, the sound simple and happy, and went on kissing and sucking just under Ian’s ear, then moving down his neck, biting lightly at the tendon and making Ian jerk, hissing.

“Mick,” Ian muttered, going hard suddenly enough that he felt dizzy. Mickey hummed noncommittally in response, snaking both arms up and around Ian’s shoulders so he could maneuver Ian’s body around to his liking. Ian followed like a puppet, his mind going blessedly quiet of any other thoughts other than how fucking hypnotic Mickey looked when he was smugly absorbed in distracting Ian.

He pulled Ian’s shoulders as he moved back, tugging Ian over him like a blanket, still licking and kissing and biting his neck, lower now, near his collarbone.

Ian jerked again, his cock pressing hard against the join of Mickey’s hips as he settled over him, holding himself up on his arms so he could give Mickey access to his neck.

He felt Mickey’s arms come around his back, pulling him in, and then his legs wrapped around Ian’s hips too, until Mickey was hugging him tight with his whole body. He nudged Ian’s face up with his own chin, nuzzling him like a puppy until Ian was close enough to kiss. He kept it gentle, ignoring Ian’s efforts to go deeper, playing softly with his tongue and lips until Ian’s whole body was buzzing.

After a while, he adjusted enough that he could reach down the front of Ian’s sweat pants and wrap and hand around Ian’s cock. Ian let out a hiss at the dryness, then watched, eyes wide, as Mickey met his eye and drew his hand out, licking all over the palm and bringing it back to Ian’s cock, never breaking eye contact.

“Fuck,” Ian breathed, pressing his forehead to Mickey’s as he moved, holding himself up so he could fuck up into Mickey’s hand.

“Come on, Ian,” Mickey urged him, tightening his grip on Ian’s cock and using his other hand to reach lower to cup his balls. “You’ve got this, just let go, come on, baby.”

Ian bit his lip, probably inappropriately aroused at the simple pet name, the kind Mickey only used when they were completely alone and probably having sex. His eyes were so soft as he watched Ian, like there was nothing more interesting or important than dedicating all of his attention to bringing Ian off. It made Ian blush and move more jerkily, the uninterrupted focus making his balls draw up tight, ready to shoot. 

“Do it,” Mickey said, almost a command but softer, licking at Ian’s lips. He ran a finger over the soft skin just behind Ian’s sack and Ian jerked, going stiff, unable to even warn Mickey because he was coming so suddenly.

Mickey went limp, seemingly uncaring of the come on his shirt that he would now have to change before going to work for the night, or his own stiff boner poking Ian’s hip, waving Ian off when he tried to grab for it.

He just let Ian lay on him, not complaining at the weight, even though it probably made it hard to breathe.

For some reason, the corner of Ian’s eyes felt damp. His nose was burning a little bit.

“I’m kind of into you, you know,” Mickey said after a while, into the hair near Ian’s hairline. 

“Same,” Ian muttered back, breathing deep lungfuls of Mickey’s scent where it was hot and damp in the crook of his neck. It felt safe here. He never wanted to leave.

“I have to get to work,” Mickey said after a long stretch of quiet. He was still cradling Ian with his arms and legs, but it was gentler now.

Ian nodded into Mickey’s neck. “Okay. Just another minute.”

Mickey relaxed beneath him. “Okay.”

 

****

 

Mickey got to the restaurant late, about ten minutes after his shift started. Harry, his boss, rolled his eyes theatrically as Mickey hustled through the door, tapping his invisible watch on his wrist, and Mickey saluted, just as sarcastically. That seemed to sufficiently mollify Harry, and he let Mickey pass. They tended to bond over mutual irreverence most of the time.

He’d been loath to leave Ian, especially with the way he’d clung after they’d gotten off on the couch. He’d been spacey all day, staring off into nothing for minutes at a time. If it was up to Mickey, he would’ve just stayed on the frayed, threadbare couch in the living room, holding Ian to his chest and knowing that he was safe.

It had been nearly two years since Ian had first called Mickey in the middle of the night, panicked and desperate for help after finding the first body in the alleyway. 

Two years since he’d been shot, since he’d almost died, since three girls had died and Svetlana had barely escaped with her life. When he thought about the whole tapestry of it, he wasn’t surprised Ian still struggled with it.

Hell, Mickey still struggled with it. It was why he worked at this bourgie fucking diner instead of cracking skulls for his uncle anymore.

While he was going over his prep work for the night, he heard the door to the kitchen swing open. Becky, one of the waitresses on shift for the night, made her way over to Mickey. She was chewing her gum loudly, in blatant violation of Harry’s No Gum On The Floor policy. She paused to blow a bright pink bubble right in Harry’s eyesight, making Harry shake his head and mutter about replaceable staff members who needed to tighten up.

Mickey liked Becky.

“Your entourage is here,” she said when she reached his station. She smirked as Mickey threw his head back, groaning up at the ceiling. He yanked off his apron and tossed it on the counter, stomping out of the kitchen toward the front of the house.

He heard them before he saw him. There was a loud, cackling peel of laughter, followed by a higher pitched giggle. Mickey sighed. He’d know Colin’s girly giggle anywhere.

When he came around the corner, he saw his brother’s head sticking above the back of the corner booth, prime real estate for the upcoming dinner rush but currently occupied by Colin, and beside him Svetlana and Mandy.

Mickey knew they would take up that corner booth for the rest of the night, ordering nothing but coffee, squabbling over nothing and pestering the waitresses and making fun of the clothing of innocent passersby like a trio of old women, except Colin was a man and they were all under twenty-five.

They did it nearly every night Mickey was on shift.

“Shouldn’t you idiots be sitting in the top balcony of a theatre loudly heckling the performers?” Mickey asked tiredly when he came to a stop in front of their booth. 

Svetlana squinted up at him. “Is that Muppets joke?”

“I think it is a Muppets joke,” Mandy agreed, nodding. She reached over to poke Mickey in the side, who scowled, swatting her away. “That’s some real current humor you got there.” 

“Cutting edge,” Colin said sagely.

Mickey wondered if Harry would fire him immediately if he strangled them all to death, or if he’d at least let him finish up his shift and collect on the hours.

Svetlana and Colin had gone out on a few dates in the wake of Tony’s attack and subsequent death. To Mickey’s dismay, they had ended up transforming into something like platonic best friends instead, and even worse, had absorbed Mandy into their fold. Now they spent most of their days tooling around town in Colin’s car, bothering Mickey at work, and periodically kidnapping Ian to bring with, while Ian would blush and apologize and make Mickey promise that they weren’t getting him in trouble with his boss.

Mickey didn’t mind when they brought Ian along. It was nice to see him smile and laugh at Svetlana’s bone-dry sense of humor, and let Mandy tease him until his face turned red from laughing so hard.

Ian was not with them today, however. Mickey was less sympathetic to their shenanigans as a result. 

“What specials are on the menu today?” Colin asked, his face completely straight, belying the fact that Mickey knew he had absolutely no intention of ordering anything more pricey than a coffee for the night. 

“Deconstructed goulash,” Mickey said through gritted teeth. “Hand-made spaetzle on the side.” 

Colin was already snickering at “deconstructed.” Mandy and Svetlana lost it at hand-made. They did this every time. They loved making fun of the gourmet descriptions on the menu, and loved it even more when Mickey had to say them out loud.

But still, Mickey had to admit that if that was the worst part of his job, he was making out like a bandit. 

After the events on the roof, and all the girls he’d seen dead, Mickey started to lose whatever taste he used to have for being his uncle’s muscle. It didn’t happen all at once, but he’d slowly started dreading going on any jobs that ended in him beating up guys who were late on payments, or tried to skim off the top of shipments. He’d gone with Colin to beat some guy with a baseball bat, a job he’d done roughly a dozen times in the past with no problem, and he’d had to run out in the middle to go throw up on the curb.

Ronnie had noticed right away, but Mickey had stubbornly insisted he was fine, he just needed a little bit to get back in the swing of things. But he never got back in the swing, and the more squeamish he got, the more Ronnie worried, aggressively, while Mickey resisted, irritably, because he’s totally fine, first of all, and second of all, he doesn’t need to be coddled. But most importantly, he wasn’t some square who needed a vanilla nine-to-five scrubbing dishes at some goddamn hipster shithole in Wicker Park. 

So Ronnie told him it was a front for money laundering, saying he wanted to expand beyond the Laundromat. Mickey relented, suspiciously at first. It was a small diner right on the edge of a neighborhood that was slowly, lazily gentrifying. Harry, the boss, was the son of an old friend of Ronnie’s and was cranky and persnickety about the food his restaurant served, but surprisingly open to the idea of letting Mickey show him some of his signature dishes.

Most surprising of all, though, was that Mickey loved it. He started out in prep work, because Harry told him he wasn’t going to get a hand up just because he was Ronnie’s nephew, which Mickey appreciated, strangely enough. It was nice, earning his keep, even if it was just in a shell to clean some dirty money. But Mickey was also loud and bossy enough that he slipped into kitchen work like a well-worn glove. In a few months, he rose to real chef work, and by the time he figured out the money laundering story was nothing but a big dumb lie to lull him into a false sense of security and that Harry was actually militantly honest on all his tax forms because his father was actually an accountant, Mickey’s too attached to the job to quit to spite his uncle anyway.

So he was left as the head chef at a reasonably popular gastropub, somewhat perplexed at when his life got so fucking lame while secretly loving all of it.

Except for the Three Amigos giving him a hard time when he should be in back getting ready for the dinner crowd.

“I have question,” Svetlana asked, her face entirely blank except for the slight twitch at the corner of her mouth. “The goulash. Is vegan, yes?”

Mandy snorted, then covered her mouth with her hand. She struggled to keep a straight face as she asked, “I have a gluten allergy. Is there gluten in the spaetzle?”

“It’s a fucking noodle,” Mickey snapped. “Of course there’s gluten in it.”

Colin tutted. “Hey now,” he said disapprovingly, “is that any way to talk to paying customers? I’m going to have to leave you a very sternly worded review on Yelp.”

“You all can go fuck yourselves,” Mickey said. “Enjoy your goddamn coffees, you freeloaders.” He stormed back to the kitchen, the loud sounds of three different registers of raucous laughter following him in through the swinging door.

 

****

 

Ian was just heading back to the neighborhood to see Lip, and maybe swing by the house to see if Debbie was home. He ran into Felicia Ramirez’s brothers completely by accident. 

He was standing on the street outside the Alibi, trying to avoid going inside. Lip was inside, and Ian wasn’t in the mood to drink, and he wasn’t in the mood to be lectured by his brother about the future. He needed to see Lip though, because he’d been avoiding him for weeks and he was at the very outside window of being reasonably able to avoid his brother without Lip actually coming to Mickey’s apartment and beating the shit out Ian. 

He was short, but he was stocky and a scrappy fighter. Ian had no desire to try wrestling his way out of a headlock.

He was at the end of his second cigarette and he sighed, staring moodily at the dying red ember. He threw it on the ground, stomping it out with his shoe, then picked it up, looking around for the garbage can. He spun in a circle, probably looking like an idiot, and he didn’t notice he wasn’t alone until he heard a deep laugh to his side.

“You dancing or something?”

Ian spun around, startled. He was staring up at a huge guy, ink-black hair buzzed into a tight fade, the guy’s face wide and moon-like, a little menacing even as he chuckled. He looked familiar. Ian couldn’t quite place him right away. He didn’t come back to his old neighborhood much anymore, but the sense of vague familiarity was common. He recognized this guy, but he wasn’t sure from where. It would probably come to him eventually.

“Uh,” Ian said. “Not really. Just looking for the trash to toss this.” He held up his cigarette butt as evidence. 

“You too good to just throw it on the ground?” the guy asked, scoffing, but also curious. He was hesitating outside the door of the Alibi too now, and Ian was so surprised he found himself telling the truth.

“Animals eat them,” Ian said, a little bashfully. Debbie had showed him an entire website devoted to pictures of dead bunnies and small dogs and raccoons who had been vivisected to show piles of undigested cigarette butts in their stomachs, lecturing Ian about the dangers of littering. Debbie was pretty convincing. It had stuck with Ian ever since. “Apparently cigarettes smell good to them? But they’re poison.”

“Well, they are cigarettes,” the guy reasoned thoughtfully. “They’re poison to us, too.”

Ian nodded, and the guy nodded back, and for a moment it was just Ian and this giant stranger, nodding amiably at each other.

Then another guy turned the corner, shorter than the giant but with the same wide, circular face. “Yo, Manny!” the guy yelled, when he caught sight of the giant, probably his brother. “You going in or what?" 

Manny. The name bounced through Ian’s face, looking for something to connect with. This new guy looked familiar too. 

The new brother reached Manny and looked at Ian. “Who are you?”

“Ian,” Ian said automatically. He stuck out his hand, looked down at it, rolled his eyes at himself, then forcefully retracted it and put it at it’s side.

“Alex,” the other brother, Alex apparently, said slowly, in confusion, obviously not understanding why they were standing around cordially introducing themselves like they were at a debutante ball when they were really just on a shitty street outside an equally shitty bar. 

Then Alex tilted his head to the side. “Wait. You’re Lip Gallagher’s brother,” Alex said softly, like it had just occurred to him. He narrowed his eyes. “He came asking around about Felicia, back when she disappeared.” 

And there it was. Ian hoped his eyes were going wide in shock, but he thought they probably were. He’d been in and out of the neighborhood countless times since the murders, and he’d studiously managed avoid ever running into the any of the families of the victims. He rarely made it out to the West Side, but he’d gone with Lip to go to some bar with his college friends in Pilsen once and had been jumpy the whole time about he’d potentially seeing Harrier Bell’s mother. He’d helped Fiona move some of her and Debbie’s stuff out of the Aurora house and had been nonsensically paranoid the entire time that they’d somehow run into Bethany Constantine’s family, although they apparently lived in a nice housing development on the other side of town.

He’d done so well, and now, through the cruel indifference of fate or whatever the hell was pulling the strings, here he was, was standing outside the Alibi casually chatting with Felicia Ramirez’s brothers.

“Yeah,” Ian said. “I knew your sister.” Then he frowned. That wasn’t exactly true.

“You did?” Manny asked. He looked just as stunned as his brother now, both staring at Ian in barely concealed incredulity. “I don’t know you.”

“Well. I mean.” Ian rubbed bit his lip, flushing for some reason, even though he wasn’t embarrassed. He was nervous, really, if he had to put a name to the emotion. After a beat, he forced himself to look up, to meet Alex’s eye. “I. I was the one. I found her, her...her body.” When he was done stuttering out the words, he realized his hands were shaking. He stared at Alex, his eyes wide, abruptly unsure what had prompted the disclosure in the first place. He wondered if Alex or Manny would kick his ass now. He felt like he’d deserve it, somehow, if they did decide to. It wasn’t his place to just assault these two guys with memories of their dead sister out of nowhere.

He felt like a voyeur, watching the emotions flit over Alex’s face, and to a more muted, shuttered extent, Manny’s.

“What?” Alex asked dully. In shock, Ian supposed.

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean—shit.” Ian swallowed, curling his hands into fists so they would stop trembling against his hips. “I shouldn’t have said anything. I don’t want you to think. I’m so sorry.” 

But Alex didn’t look upset still, not yet. He looked at Manny, who still seemed stricken. Alex looked back at Ian.

“What do you mean?”

Ian took a deep breath. It looked like this was what he what he was doing now, mentally bracing himself. “I found her. I called the police. I was the one who saw her.” He stuttered through a tiny bit more of the story, interrupting himself to apologize again and again, he wasn’t sure what for, maybe the fact that he hadn’t gotten there early enough to help her, or that he was even dredging it all up again now. “I’m sorry,” he said yet again, when he finished his tale.

“We tried to figure out more what had happened to her,” Alex said finally, quietly. He swallowed thickly. Beside him, Manny reached over and gripped his shoulder, bracingly. “We didn’t even know she was...she was dead, until we got a call that winter. About the cop who went crazy, killed a bunch of people.”

“That goddamn Russian cop from the neighborhood,” Manny said, his voice a growl. “Markovich.” 

“I saw him around,” Alex said, his voice distant. He was staring past Ian now at the brick wall, eyes sightless. Ian wondered if that’s how he looked to Mickey, when he got distracted these days, lost in his own thoughts.

“Yeah,” Ian said. “Me, too.”

The mythology around Tony had swirled and spread into a vast miasma of rumor and tall tales when the story had first broken. Tony's mother had ended up moving out of the city to Ohio to live with her sister after a few brutal months of her car getting vandalized and her house spray painted. She couldn't even get the Catholic cemetery near the house to accept Tony's body for burial, forcing her to cremate it instead.

When the people in Ian’s old neighborhood realized who had been living among them, sudden stories had sprung up, remembered instances of neighborhood cats and dogs disappearing when Tony was young, Tony’s youngest cousin Marsha going missing for a few hours one afternoon while Tony was in the sixth or seventh grade, reappearing with scratches on her arms, struck dumb for a few days, unable to explain what had happened to her. Then there were other, more hysterical repressed memories, some of Fiona’s old classmates insisting Tony had stalked them for a time, or tried to hurt them, or heroic examples of some girl or another escaping at the last minute, and being too traumatized or the memory too repressed to come to fore until after Tony had died in the hospital.

Ian didn’t know how many of the stories were true, or how many had developed as a collective lore to cope with the realization that someone like Tony had been living undetected in their midst for so long. He wasn’t sure, if these stories were true, why no one had thought to put them together earlier. Why Ian had never heard them or connected the dots. 

“We should’ve just killed him,” Manny said suddenly. He turned to Alex, seeming to forget about Ian for a moment. “Why didn’t we just kill him, that smarmy fucking piece of shit.”

“We didn’t know then,” Alex said with a shrug. It was a strangely familiar gesture, Ian thought. He understood the melancholy immediately, like it was his own. It practically was his own.

“But we knew Felicia was in trouble. We knew that.” Manny sounded frustrated, like the wisdom of hindsight just made him more angry. Ian could relate. “We went to the police. We knew. That fucker probably knew we were looking for her.” 

“I guess we were just too goddamn stupid to know any better,” Alex said. He sounded bleak. It was that sound, probably, the haunted, guilty echo of being unable to go back and change the past, even though it would be so easy now they he knew better, that prompted Ian to speak before he knew he was going to.

“I didn’t know either,” Ian said suddenly.

Both brothers turned to look at him, apparently remembering that he was still there. “What? What are you talking about?”

Ian took a breath. If nothing else, if he brought the Ramirez brothers inside, he might be able to put off another long-winded lecture from Lip about the importance of trying to get some credits in at the community college. That alone was worth the tight knot his stomach was whirling itself into at the moment. 

“Do you think...could I buy you both a drink?” Ian offered. “I can explain more. What I know.”

Alex looked at Manny, who shrugged, and then Alex nodded at Ian, warily. “Sure,” he said, and followed Ian into the bar.

 

****

 

When his shift at the restaurant ended, it was nearly eleven and Mickey was ready to go to bed and sleep forever.

He got a text from Ian as he was leaving the kitchen, though, and remembering how moody Ian had been earlier, Mickey turned in the opposite direction of home and headed toward the Alibi, where Ian was apparently with Lip.

Ian hadn’t said so in the text, but Mickey assumed it as an SOS to save him from another lecture from Lip. Lip had become doggedly determined that Ian sign up for a few classes at community college, and the more Ian resisted, the more fanatic about the Benefits of Higher Education Lip became. If nothing else, Lip just seemed worried that Ian didn’t have any direction, now that he was safe and settled and no longer hooking.

It wasn’t like Mickey didn’t think Lip had a point. Ian did jobs for Uncle Ronnie a few times a week, and he still helped out at the Laundromat, even though Mandy more or less had it under control, but mostly he seemed at loose ends. He seemed to spend more time staring glumly out into the middle distance than anything else. He seemed bored a lot of the time. It made Mickey anxious, and most of all he wanted Ian to find something of his own, something to focus on, even if it was just a stupid fucking community college course or opening up another Laundromat in Uptown, which Ronnie had offered to him months ago. Mickey hoped that maybe Lip would do his dirty work for him and be able to eventually push Ian into making a decision, without Mickey needing to get involved and risk hurting Ian’s feelings. 

And since Mickey was also morally opposed to agreeing with Lip on anything, so he dutifully got on the L to go save Ian from his brother’s quest to rescue him.

When he walked into the Alibi, he paused in the door when he located Ian, because while he was in fact sharing a booth in the back with Lip, there were also two other guys in the booth. Their backs were to Mickey so he couldn't recognize them right away. He narrowed his eyes as he walked over, waving at Kev behind the bar as he went. 

Ian looked subdued as he talked to the guys, but when Mickey reached the table, he looked up, smiling brightly. Mickey slid in behind him, knocking Ian’s shoulder affectionately.

“What’s going on,” he said gruffly, and when he turned to fully face the two strangers in the booth, he raised his eyebrows. It was the Ramirez brothers, of all people.

“Hey, Mickey,” Alex said. He took a long drink of his beer. He looked tired. Beside him, Manny was also solemnly finishing his own drink.

“Look who Ian ran into outside the bar,” Lip said pointedly, his voice making it clear what he thought of the whole situation. Ian seemed intent to ignore him.

“I was just telling them about Felicia,” Ian said under his breath. It took Mickey a second to hear what he was saying, and then another to really understand what he was saying.

“You told them?” Mickey asked, stunned. He looked across the table at the two men, idly wondering if he needed to throw down so Ian wouldn’t totally get his ass knocked into the ground.

“It’s okay,” Alex said, holding out a calming hand. “I know last time we saw you, you guys were just...trying to figure out what was going on. I can respect that.”

“You should’ve told us what you thought was going on,” Manny said, glaring accusingly. 

“We didn’t want to piss you off,” Lip said, shrugging blithely.

Mickey leaned slightly past Ian to glare at Lip. “I think what Lip means is we didn’t want you to think we’d hurt your sister. But we also weren’t sure who had.” 

Alex nodded at that. Ian winced apologetically. “I’m sorry.” It sounded like that wasn’t the first time he’d apologized that night. “We don’t have to keep talking about her.”

“No,” Alex said. “It’s okay.”

“We talk about her all the time,” Manny said. His big face crumpled slightly. “It’s not like she’s not always on our mind anyway, you’re not making us think of her more than we normally would.”

“And you had your own troubles too, it sounds like,” Alex said. He nodded at Ian. 

“Did you tell them everything?” Mickey asked quietly, turning slightly into Ian. 

“Almost all of it,” Ian said. “I didn’t really see the point in hiding it.” Mickey didn't like it, but he supposed he couldn't disagree. Besides, it was Ian's decision, to tell people about his life before, and what had happened to him.

Alex rubbed the back of his neck, like he was considering, then said, “I wish you would’ve told us what you were up to, back then. Trying to track down who hurt Felicia and those other girls. We would’ve helped. We’ve actually been, well. We kind of had an idea, after everything. A business idea.” 

“A business idea?” Lip repeated, raising a skeptical eyebrow.

“Shut up, Lip,” Ian said, punching Lip on the shoulder.

Alex shared a long look with Manny, who shrugged, seeming to give him he silent go ahead. Mickey supposed there must be a kind of relief in all this, talking with someone like Ian, possibly the only other person in the world who would really understand what had happened to Felicia, and probably thought about her nearly as much as her own family. Mickey himself felt a strange kinship with the brothers now, sitting across from them at the table.

After a thoughtful pause, Alex began to speak slowly, each word leaving his mouth reluctantly as though he were just waiting for Ian or Lip, or now Mickey, to stop him and tell him it was the worst fucking idea any of them had ever heard.

“We’ve been talking, I mean me and Manny and our other brothers, about the people in our neighborhood, what they do when they can’t find people,” he said. He stared at the sticky booth top, tracing an invisible pattern with one finger. “When Felicia disappeared, we knew she was in trouble. She’d been having a rough time, but we’d hear from her sometimes. She came home to see our mom. We knew she was okay. 

“Then, she dropped off the face of the earth. We went to the cops, and they fucking laughed us out the door. We knew she might’ve been...you know.” He waved a hand in the air, looking slightly embarrassed. “Sleeping around, you know. For money.” 

“But that don’t mean she should’ve died,” Manny said sharply. He didn’t speak much, but when he did, Mickey noticed he seemed much more vehement than Alex, like he didn’t give a fuck if anybody thought he was just a big dumb idiot. He was probably used to that assumption, anyway.

“Of course not,” Ian said gently.

“And then, when she...after we got the call.” He looked away, his eyes dry, but sighing deeply, like it was coming from the very bottom of his stomach. It was the most miserable fucking sigh Mickey had ever heard. “All I could think about was what if the cops had paid attention to us? What if someone had been able to look for her? We tried, but we didn’t know what we were doing. What do all the other families in the neighborhood do when they need help but the cops don’t do shit?” 

“I tried to figure out what was going on,” Ian admitted. “I was terrible at it. I was just grasping at straws.”

“I wish there was a way to like, investigate,” Alex said. “Like detectives, you know. Only cheap enough for people we know to afford. So it’s not just up to the fucking cops when shit goes wrong.”

He sat back, and Mickey felt Ian relax back against him too, both seemingly caught up in the beatific ideal of a world where people could reasonably hire cheap services to hunt down missing loved ones. Mickey could admit it sounded like a pretty sweet deal.

“Like a private investigator service,” Lip supplied. Alex and Manny both looked surprised, but Lip just looked around the table, looking his characteristic superior-slash-impatient. “That’s what you’re describing. Following leads, taking on clients, working outside the police jurisdiction. You’re talking about becoming a PI agency.”

Alex winced, like he was embarrassed at the audacity. “I know it sounds fucking stupid,” he started to say, but Ian interrupted.

“No it doesn’t,” Ian said at once. At Alex’s wry look, Ian shook his head. “It doesn’t.”

“I think it’s a good idea,” Lip said. 

At Ian’s, and frankly also Mickey’s, shocked expression, Lip rolled his eyes. “It’s better than sitting around your apartment all day moping and occasionally pulling side jobs for his fucking uncle,” Lip said to Ian, jerking a thumb at Mickey when he mentioned Ronnie.

Ian was quick to look at Alex. “I mean. Not that I have to be involved. It’s your idea, I wouldn’t have to be involved.”

Mickey rolled his eyes. This was fucking painful. It was like watching a couple of middle schoolers try to ask each other out.

“Sounds like a perfect goddamn fit to me,” Mickey said flatly. He elbowed Ian lightly in the side. “This asshole loves sticking his nose into shit that isn’t his business.” He nodded at Alex and Manny. “You guys know some shit about working outside the law. And all three of you hate the fucking cops.”

“Except for Detective Johnson,” Ian interrupted, and Mickey rolled his eyes yet again, because he would never understand Ian’s loyalty to a fucking cop, especially one who hadn’t really protected him from Tony in the first place, but he knew from experience it was a futile argument, so he let it go. 

Across the booth, Lip made a thoughtful noise. “It does make sense, actually. You could use Johnson as a contact. You’d have to get licensed though, eventually.”

“I couldn’t do that,” Ian said, deflating. “I didn’t even fucking graduate high school.”

“Me neither,” Manny said, shrugging.

Mickey felt fired up just listening to their defeated tones, because what did it fucking matter? Ian looked so tentative about the whole thing, like a goddamn piece of paper really mattered more than his instinctive ability to see strangers as people, the way he still agonized over Felicia and Harriet and Bethany like he knew them, all fully-realized people in his mind, not just cardboard cutouts of victims even the news had long seemed to forget about. That was important, Mickey was sure of it. Ian needed to know that. 

“What the fuck does it matter? If you’re good, you’re good. You’ll have to work at it, but it’s a skill like any other,” Mickey said, gaining momentum as he went. He ignored Lip’s amused smile, focusing on the way Ian was watching him, even the pointed interest from Alex and Manny giving him confidence to keep going. “I think the most important part is wanting to help people. I mean, it’s not like you’ll get rich helping a bunch of poor people in the neighborhood, but if you want to help them, you’ll probably do better at it than a bunch of old guys only after it for the paycheck.”

Stopping to draw breath from his rant, Mickey felt himself blush slightly at the captivated look on all three faces at the table, save for the fourth, Lip, but fuck Lip, seriously.

“I’m just saying,” Mickey muttered to himself, looking down. 

Under the table, he felt Ian grab his hand, squeezing it tight.

“I think we could really do this,” Ian said softly. He sounded so carefully hopeful that something in Mickey’s chest contracted almost painfully. He was struck with the desire to reach forward through time and break down any possible barrier to that hope, to somehow clear the way so Ian could achieve this wild, mildly impractical dream, even this early on in the planning stages.

Across the table, Alex smiled, just a small movement of the corners of his lips. “You really think so?”

Ian took Mickey’s hand in both of his, drawing it into his own lap beneath the booth, squeezing again. He smiled, just a little bigger than Alex. “Yeah,” he said. “I think we can.”

 

***

 

On the way home from the Alibi, Ian was practically buzzing with excitement. Beside him, Mickey was conked out on his shoulder, snoring softly into Ian’s neck. The L car nearly empty. It was after midnight on a Wednesday, after all, and aside from a homeless guy at the end of the car who was also asleep they were alone. Ian took advantage of the privacy to hold Mickey’s hand with both of his, holding it in his lap, rubbing his thumb absently over the top of Mickey’s hand in a way that made him squirm intermittently in his sleep.

It was a crazy idea probably, Ian kept reminding himself. The mere thought of the words private fucking detective agency made Ian feel like he was ten years old again, playing pretend with his brothers in the old house on Wallace Street. He barely even knew Alex and Manny, and the circumstances under which he even slightly knew them were horrific. It felt a little like exploiting Felicia’s death, and Harriet’s and Bethany’s too, coming together with the Ramirezes to fight crime, like that would somehow make their deaths worth it.

Nothing would make it worth it. They were kids, just like he had been. Nothing would make their deaths worth it.

But, he couldn’t help but think quietly, hesitantly, it might also help kids like them stay safe in the future. He wondered, idly, if Fiona would’ve used a service like that, when she’d first started receiving the threatening photos of Ian, instead of escaping to Michigan, too scared to contact the police and too poor and unsure of what to do to investigate on her own. Would she have tried to figure out a different way to keep Ian safe? He wasn’t sure. 

Ian felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. Freeing one hand from Mickey’s sleepy grip, Ian eased the phone out of his pocket and checked the caller ID, and almost like he had summoned her, read FIONA.

“Hey, Fi,” he said quietly into the receiver, not wanting to wake Mickey up. He knew he was probably exhausted after working the whole shift at the diner, and yet he’d still come to the Alibi when Ian had asked, without even a question or a hesitation. Ian smiled at the thought.

“Hey, Ian,” Fiona said. She sounded tired, but happy. She worked weird hours anymore, but she seemed calmer and more secure than Ian remembered her being in years. “Did you get a chance to meet up with Lip?”

“Yep,” Ian confirmed, and then thought about telling Fiona about meeting Alex and Manny, and the infant dream of a PI firm, and then decided against it. There would be time for that later, he decided, when it was firmer.

He could tell Fiona wanted to press more. She didn’t, though, taking an even breath instead. In the years after the murders, Fiona and Ian had clashed a few times over Fiona’s need to mother him, and Ian’s resentment that she still felt she had the right to do so, after everything. Eventually, they reached a type of détente, where Ian agreed to volunteer more information about his life than he might like to keep her happy, and Fiona did her best not to butt in and press for more. It wasn’t a perfect compromise, but it was better than nothing.

“Good,” she said after a moment. “Well. I wanted to see if you were going to be at dinner this Sunday.”

“I think so,” Ian said. He looked down at Mickey, smiling at the light snore that escaped on an exhale. “I don’t know if Mickey’s working or not.”

“Okay. Ronnie said he thought Mickey was off, but double-check.”

Ian blinked, like he always did when he was reminded of how close Fiona had grown with Mickey’s uncle in the last year. 

It had been gradual, but in the months after Ian had finally healed from the shooting and was back on his feet, Ronnie had begun to take Fiona on as his special project.

They’d run into each other a few times at Ian’s apartment, coming and going in the hallway, and Fiona had been wary, seemingly appreciative of his stern, stoic presence when Ian had been in the hospital but less sure how to interact with him outside the context of Ian’s recovery. She seemed skittish to Ian. Ian had the feeling that she was ashamed, especially when he would catch her looking on as Ronnie bossed Mickey and Ian around, or lectured Colin and Mandy about taking work more seriously when he caught them lazing around the apartment watching soap operas. It was like she saw Ronnie’s effortless care taking as an affront to the long period when she had dropped the ball with Ian and her own siblings.

She also seemed to think Ronnie was hitting on her when he casually asked her how she was doing, if she ever needed help just to call, if she’d like to get coffee sometime. With a queasy stomach, Ian thought maybe Ronnie was, and then forcibly made himself think of literally anything else.

But then one day, Ian had observed, like an explorer on safari watching two prickly adults in their natural habitat, as Ronnie leaned against the wall to watch Fiona balancing her checkbook on the droopy couch in Mickey and Ian’s apartment.

“You’re good at math?” Ronnie had asked. 

Fiona had looked up, surprised, then abashed, then embarrassed. “No,” she said. “Just, getting some work done, real quick. I like to make sure I stay on budget for the month, with me and Debbie.”

“Hm,” Ronnie had said, and then left for the day.

The next thing Ian knew, Fiona called him to say she was heading to some office building down in the Loop that Ronnie owned, just two or three people balancing Excel sheets all day. Ian had been shocked somewhat stupid. When he told it to Mickey, Mickey had also cocked his head, too surprised to say more than, “Huh.”

And that was how Fiona had become a Ukrainian mafia-adjacent financial advisor.

Now, on the L, Ian heard Fiona make a thoughtful sound. “Carl and Liam are going to be coming,” she said. “I talked to their dads yesterday.”

She sounded like she was trying to suppress a grin but not having much success. She had been on a mission ever since moving back to the city to try and get as many visits as possible with the boys. It made Ian feel like a deep, painful knot of tension was unwinding from his shoulders every time he got to spend more time with all his siblings together, and leave them at the end of the day knowing that he would see them again soon. 

“That’s great!” Ian smiled to himself. “I’ll definitely have to come then. Maybe Svetlana can be my plus-one, if Mickey’s working.”

“Good,” Fiona said. She paused, then, “I can’t wait to see you. I miss you, kid. I love you.”

And even though Ian was almost twenty years old, living happily with his boyfriend, feeling pretty adult most of the time, there was something about hearing Fiona tell him she loved him that made him feel like a little kid again, being tucked into bed by his big sister. He could almost feel her kissing him on the forehead. 

“Love you too, Fi,” Ian said, then they both said goodbye and hung up.

He roused Mickey at their stop, helping him stumble out onto the platform, throwing an arm around his shoulder to steer him down the steps.

They walked in cozy silence to their shitbox apartment. Ian didn’t realize he was smiling the whole way until they were upstairs and inside and Mickey turned around to peer at him blearily.

“What’s with you?” Mickey asked, yawning wide, looking half ready to fall asleep on his feet.

Ian didn’t know how to explain how he felt in that moment. He thought about earlier, when he’d been so guilty and upset thinking about the girls, and now, the feeling of serendipitous possibility, all from accidentally running into Felicia Ramirez’s brothers and being privy to Alex’s quiet, uncertain business idea. He thought of his promise to call Alex tomorrow, to figure out a time to meet and start hashing out some real plans.

He thought of his siblings, of Fiona especially, even Lip and his well-meaning college bullying. He thought of taking Svetlana to dinner on Sunday, where she would be cordial and uncomfortable with Ronnie, as usual, stiff with Fiona, blisteringly dismissive to Lip, and eventually hole up somewhere with Mandy and Colin and hopefully Ian and spend the night snickering and making Ian laugh until he felt like he would die. 

But mostly, he thought of Mickey, and stared back at him now, and felt his smile widen. He probably looked deranged.

“You look really weird,” Mickey said, unsurprisingly, but he was grinning now too.

Ian stepped forward and wrapped both arms around Mickey’s body, kissing him soundly. He leaned back, pulling Mickey with him so he was made to lean just slightly on his tiptoes, a position that Mickey grumbled about but Ian knew he secretly loved.

He let himself run his hands up and down Mickey’s back, his sides, smiling into the kiss as Mickey twitched when it tickled, but never fully pulled away. He cupped the back of Ian’s neck, his arm palms staying soothingly still on the nape.

Ian walked him backward toward the bedroom, both of them laughing into each other’s mouths as they knocked into the couch, then the edge of the doorway, but too caught up in tasting each other and licking into the other’s mouth to pull away and move separately together.

With a laugh, Ian pushed Mickey backward, watching him bounce lightly on the mattress. Mickey laughed, yanking at his shirt, getting distracted as Ian stood over him, slowly peeling off his clothes until he was naked, looming over him.

“Better take care of those boxers,” Ian said after a moment, loving how Mickey just seemed content to stare at him forever. 

“You’re not the boss of me,” Mickey grumbled, but took them off anyway, until he was lying naked, body pliant from sleepiness, watching Ian with hot, patient eyes. 

Ian thought about fucking him, but Mickey’s eyes were drooping again already and Ian doubted he would stay awake long enough for Ian to get him ready, to go as thoroughly and slowly as Ian wanted to. So Ian smiled, kneeled on the bed and settled his body alongside Mickey’s. Ian smeared another kiss across his mouth, and reached over for the lube. He slicked one hand and wrapped it around Mickey’s cock, jerking him nice and smooth, staring avidly at the way Mickey arched his back, biting his lip at the pleasure.

“Jesus,” Mickey muttered to himself.

Ian, still smiling, hid his face in Mickey neck, leaning his weight on one elbow so he could hover over Mickey and get a better grip on his cock, hitching Mickey's leg up near his hip.

He felt Mickey pawing at Ian’s hip, and pulled back to see Mickey’s face, red and shining, mouth open as he panted. “You, too,” he said breathlessly.

Ian nodded, his mouth suddenly dry, kissing Mickey sloppily while he adjust his grip, wrapping his hand around both of their cocks and gasping at the feeling his cock head catching just below Mickey’s.

He jerked them both for a while, the room quiet except for their panting breaths and the wet slap of Ian’s hand on them both. Mickey’s hands ran up and down Ian’s body, then down to the sheets, opening and clenching, his legs jerking, like he couldn’t stand to be still but didn’t want to interrupt Ian’s rhythm.

Ian shifted over so he could rut more evenly against Mickey, loving the groan Mickey made as Ian hooked one of Mickey’s legs over his hip, making it easier to thrust up and over Mickey’s stomach.

“Ian,” Mickey whispered, biting his lip. He leaned up, bit at Ian’s lip, fell back again, like it was too much work, like he was willing to just let Ian use to him, to bring them both their pleasure. Ian was hot all over, his skin prickling at the trust, at how Mickey was watching him, eyes half-lidded, mouth hanging slack and open.

“Mickey, I—jesus, I just,” Ian gasped, his thrusts getting jerky, moving them both up and down on the bed as his cock slid wetly against Mickey’s on Mickey’s stomach. He brought a slick finger down between Mickey’s legs, just resting at the tight pucker of his hole, tapping at the rim. Mickey threw his head back on the pillow, letting loose a loud gasping wail.

“I love you,” Ian whispered fiercely into his ear, and Mickey cried out again, coming hotly between them. Ian brought his hand up to finish him off, pulling away when Mickey winced from the sensitivity, then finished himself, adding to mess on Mickey’s stomach. 

Mickey was like a loose noodle in the aftermath, so Ian got up with a huff to go on wobbly legs to bathroom for a towel. When he got back to clean up, Mickey was mostly asleep.

When they were clean enough for now, Ian flopped down, pulling Mickey onto his chest. Mickey protested in a sleepy mumble, then settled.

“You’re really nice,” Mickey mumbled vaguely, like he did when he was just about to drift to sleep but his mouth was still going without his explicit permission. 

“Yeah?” Ian said, squeezing his shoulder into a tighter snuggle.

“Yeah,” Mickey agreed. His body went lax in Ian’s arms. “The nicest.” And he was asleep.

Ian stared up at the ceiling for a long time after that, holding Mickey, mind drifting. When he finally began to get tired, it was the to the warm certainty that when he woke up, he could have just as good a day tomorrow. It was the safest feeling Ian could possibly imagine, and he smiled to himself as his eyes closed, the safest part about that feeling snoring softly against his chest.