There was a time when Leah would have run up to him and flung her arms around him the moment he walked up to the front door, usually before he’d even had a chance to knock. When she would have almost knocked him over with her hug and then pulled him into the house of whatever foster home she was staying at those days.
Some of them had been nice, others had been less so, but there had been a lot of them. And in each one that Leah was shuffled through, she changed a little, withdrew a little bit more into herself.
Aaron gazed into his younger sister’s eyes, and his heart ached. She had been such a cheerful, normal teenaged girl, but now, he barely recognized the sullen, defiant sixteen-year-old who stared back at him. She might have the same cornflower blue eyes as always, and the same features, but those features were pulled into a scowl most of the time, at least when she was around him.
“Leah, you know the house rules,” Julie was the one who ran the group home, and she was tough as nails, a no-nonsense type. But then, by the time a child got to this particular group home, it was because everyone else had given up on them. This was a place where Aaron knew that they put kids in to keep them as safe as possible until they aged out of care.
“Yeah, whatever,” Leah said, with a dismissive roll of her eyes, tossing her long auburn hair back over her slender shoulders. Too slender. She wasn’t eating enough, Aaron would bet on it. “I just stayed out for one night, Julie. It’s not the end of the world. People do it all the time.”
“When they’re sixteen?” Aaron broke in, and Leah turned to glare at him, but the look was different from when she did it to Julie. From Julie, she seemed to expect that sort of thing, but when she gazed at Aaron, there was hurt in her eyes, a disbelief that her big brother, who had once been someone that she idolized, would take the side of her enemy.
“You haven’t done any of the required things,” Julie continued, seemingly not even noticing the tense exchange between the siblings. “Your room is a mess, and you haven’t been keeping up with your chores, or the program work.” Leah was in a program, as were all the kids who were in this group home, and she wouldn’t be able to leave this house until she had finished the work. “Not to mention, your school called again. They say you haven’t been to class in a week and a half.”
Leah shrugged but didn’t even bother denying it. And that broke Aaron’s heart, made him feel like it was shredding into jagged little pieces in his chest because there had been a time when Leah had loved school. She’d always been bright and brought home good grades, even better than Aaron himself had in high school.
But she was now in danger of flunking right out of her sophomore year of high school, and she didn’t even care. She didn’t seem to care about much of anything, and Aaron sighed and dropped his gaze, looking at the floor, covered in worn, faded blue carpet. It was at least clean. There had been other places which Leah had been through that weren’t.
His sister was suffering, and it was his fault. At least partially. It was a guilty burden that he knew that he would carry for the rest of his life, even if he did get her back with him. But he’d been trying to do that for years now, literally years.
“Am I dismissed?” Leah snapped to mocking attention like the world’s most surly soldier, snapping a sharp salute toward Julie and clicking her heels together sharply. It was so intensely rude, and Aaron sighed as he looked into her eyes, which were so remote.
That was probably his fault, too.
“Yes. Go do your homework,” Julie directed, and Leah turned on her heel so that her wavy reddish hair spun out around her, then stalked off out of the room that Julie used as her office.
“Aaron, you’re her only family, correct?” Julie asked, as though she didn’t know already. She had the details of every kid that she had in her house memorized. Hell, it wouldn’t surprise Aaron to know that she remembered every kid she’d ever had, every tragedy, every story that had gone so horribly wrong.
“Yes.” Aaron dropped down into a chair, and it was a relief to surrender to it, to just let gravity pull on his body. It was always so exhausting to come here, which was probably part of why he didn’t come as often as he used to. “Our parents were both only children.”
Julie nodded briskly, and she was stern and no-nonsense, but there was also compassion in her eyes. She cared, even if Leah couldn’t see it. But then, Leah was so wrapped up in her own pain she couldn’t see much of anything else.
“And your parents were in an accident two and a half years ago, correct?” Julie prompted, but Aaron didn’t take the bait. He just nodded briefly, not interested in being drawn into a conversation about this.
For a long moment, a tense silence stretched between them, and then Julie sighed and looked down at the mounds of paper which covered her desk. Aaron literally had no idea what color the desk itself was, it was so utterly burdened with papers, and all of those papers, Aaron knew, represented a child who needed help.
“Aaron, I’m going to level with you. Leah doesn’t belong here.” Julie steepled her fingers, peering at him over them. “She has a chance to get out of an unfortunate situation. She’s bright, and charming, and clever. And more than that, she has you.”
Aaron snorted softly. Yes, she had him, and always would, but she didn’t seem to want that. More and more, she was pulling away, and Aaron knew it even as he felt utterly powerless to stop it. It was like he was caught in a current, being swept far out to sea, watching his little sister standing on the shore but powerless to get to her.
“You’re the ace up her sleeve, Aaron,” Julie continued, undeterred by his snort. Undoubtedly, she’d learned to take worse, she couldn’t be anything but tough to have the job that she did. “Help her. Get her out of here.”
“I’m trying, but …” Aaron started, but Julie held up her hand, indicating that she wasn’t quite done yet.
“She just has to finish the program. The State of California requires that before she can be placed somewhere else. So help her. Encourage her to do it. I can only do so much.”
How frustrating it must be to have her job. To know that these kids hated her for doing what she needed to do and that they would never trust her, not really, because she had been pretty much put into the role of their jailer. This was a strong woman, passionate about her work, and it would always go unappreciated.
Well, not by him, he could at least give her that much. So he nodded and rose to his feet without further comment. What else was there for him to say, for either of them to say? They both wanted the same things, to keep Leah safe and healthy and to get her out of this place, which they both knew was usually just a step along the path toward jail, at least for a lot of kids.
Neither of them wanted Leah to be one of those kids, and Aaron nodded slightly to Julie as he left. This woman was on his side, on Leah’s side, if she would only see it.
Rubbing at his temples, his eyes, Aaron headed for where he knew that Leah would be. Like many teenagers before her, she had gotten in trouble and then stomped off to her room. As he got closer, he heard the loud heavy metal music, blaring loud enough that it was probably in danger of causing hearing loss.
Aaron raised his hand and knocked, but she didn’t answer. Maybe she couldn’t even hear him, with how loud her music was. The wooden door was actually trembling with the force of it, and he gently pushed it open and walked inside.
She had her phone plugged into a set of speakers, which she had pumped up to the max. Silently, Aaron turned it down to a more reasonable level, where they had a chance of actually being able to hear each other.
“You didn’t come last week,” Leah accused, and she had her arms crossed protectively over her chest, pulled back away from him and into herself even as she flung the accusation at him.
“I know. I’m sorry,” Aaron told her honestly. She was sitting on her bed, and he was glad to see that she at least had her homework spread out around her. When she had left Julie’s office, he wouldn’t have laid very good odds at all that she had intended to do what she was told, but she could still surprise him sometimes.
“It’s no big deal,” Leah told him, with a negligent little shrug, but Aaron didn’t make the mistake of believing that. It was a big deal, or she wouldn’t have said it, and once more he made the resolution to get better at this. Seeing her was a reminder of all of his failings, but he probably should be reminded of that.
“I’ll come next week.” Aaron dropped down into the chair by her desk, looking into her eyes, trying to read her. Trying to understand her. For all of her spunk and fire, she seemed so damn sad sometimes, like now. Just a lost kid, and Aaron wished to God that he knew how to help her.
She didn’t say anything, and Aaron waited and then glanced at her piles of school books. The sight of the textbooks and the binders brought him right back, and he smiled a little as he saw that some of the textbooks were exactly the same as the ones that he had been using, and it didn’t seem like that many years ago, either.
“You want some help?”
It would be a mistake to mention Julie here, he knew instinctively. So he made the offer as casually as he could and hoped that he remembered this stuff well enough that he could actually be of some help.
She looked at him, her big, round eyes slightly narrowed, a cynical look in them that Aaron didn’t care for at all. But slowly, she nodded and shifted some of the books out of the way so that Aaron could join her on her bed.
“It’s math,” she explained. “I fucking hate math.” Hardly a unique sentiment, though Aaron didn’t like hearing her swear so casually, not at all. She was so young still, but commenting on it would probably only drive a wedge between them more than ever.
Aaron just nodded, and they got down to work. Hours passed, and they switched from math to history to the novel she was reading in English, and for a moment, it felt like everything was back to normal. Like their parents dying was nothing but a bad dream, that Aaron and Leah were just kids, teasing each other, annoying each other, loving each other.
How long he would have stayed, Aaron wasn’t even sure. Leah was starting to open up, and she’d even mentioned how she was going to start on the work that she needed to do to get out of here. It was a huge binder full of papers that she needed to fill out, life skill exercises and stuff, and she thought it was stupid, but she was going to try to power through them.
In all honesty, they probably were pretty stupid, but it was all just red tape that she had to go through, and they both knew it, though it was the first time that she had shown any indication that she was aware, and that was comforting.
Suddenly, though, just after Leah had told him that, Aaron’s phone buzzed. A voice that he only barely recognized, and had only spoken to a few times before, was on the other end of the line.
It was their new manager, Brad, calling a meeting, and Aaron sighed softly but bowed to the inevitable. He didn’t trust Brad as far as he could throw this entire house, but the guy was his boss, in a way. And he didn’t call meetings frivolously.
“Sorry, kiddo, I have to go,” Aaron told his sister, and it really was a shame because she had actually smiled a few times and even laughed once or twice. Every time he came and put the effort in, it was rewarded, but it was so hard to find the time sometimes. “Duty calls.”
“I bet it’s about a tour,” Leah commented and then smirked a little bit at Aaron’s surprised start. “I mean, you guys did just drop a new album, right?”
Well, that was a shock. Aaron hadn’t had any idea at all that Leah was paying attention to anything like that, though she did, of course, know who he was. He nodded slowly because her guess was a shrewd one.
“Yeah, I bet it is.” Aaron frowned as he looked into her eyes, and more than anything, he did not want to leave her. They were just getting somewhere here, and, as always, his job called him away.
“Okay, see you,” Leah said, and the smile had faded from her face and the happiness from her eyes. Aaron hugged her, acting on impulse, and she clung to him, burying her face in his shoulder, her grip surprisingly fierce and strong from someone so small.
“I want you to work on getting out of here,” Aaron murmured to her when the embrace had ended. “So you can come live with me.”
“But the social worker said …” Leah started, and Aaron shook his head.
“I know. She said you couldn’t live with me because of my job. I’m away too much. So after this tour, I’ll quit the Lost Boys.”
Until he said it, he hadn’t even known that he was thinking about it. All of those calculations had been going on under the level of his conscious thought. But it felt right, speaking the words out loud.
Quit the Lost Boys. Yes, that was the right thing to do, and she flung her arms around him again, this time initiating the hug. Neither of them spoke again, and shortly after that, Aaron left her bedroom, her homework all done.
She had her job to do, and he would finish his obligations, as well. He wandered out into the street, the gray concrete echoing the steely color of the clouds which had rolled in. It was a chilly day for Los Angeles, and there were even a few droplets of rain, a cold, dull, fall day.
But the clouds, he knew, wouldn’t last forever. And neither would this situation. He and Leah would pull through this, and he smiled a bit to himself as he started to look around for the distinctive, brilliant yellow of a cab. He had a meeting to get to, after all.
It was a busy time of day, apparently. Aaron walked as he looked around, and he didn’t see a single taxi that wasn’t already with someone. Gazing around with more desperation, Aaron finally spotted one with the light on top blazing brightly, and he raised his hand, summoning it over.
He hated to be late. Hated it more than most other things, was the sort of person who would rather be half an hour early than a few minutes late. So even though he still had half an hour to get to a building that was only about fifteen minutes away, at most, he still reached for the handle of the cab door with a sense of urgency. If he didn’t grab this cab, it seemed likely that he wouldn’t be able to get another one, not with how thick the crowds were this time of day.
Indeed, even as he was reaching for the door, someone else was, too. Aaron’s gaze caught on a strong hand with long, tapered fingers, the cuff of an expensive, dark suit jacket, as someone else tried to hook their fingers into the handle even as he did.
His fingers brushed over the stranger’s, and Aaron glanced up, eyes narrowed, fully intending to tell the man off. Or that was the intention, at least until he looked up, and up, right into the annoyed amber eyes of a man who wasn’t a stranger at all.
Where had he seen this man before? Somewhere, he was sure of that, but it was hard to think, for some reason. Maybe it was the din from the street, or the annoyance from almost having his cab taken, or the situation with his sister.
Or maybe it was just that he couldn’t seem to look away from this man, and neither of them pulled their hands away, both still locked around the shiny metal door handle.