Summary: Pre-movie – 8-year old Jack and big brother Bobby – Bobby twitched a smile, easing his arm from under Jack and settling the sleeping eight-year old against his side like the kid belonged there. Because he did belong there. Jack belonged beside Bobby, safe and sound.

Disclaimer: Not mine

Warnings: Language and mentions of past child abuse

A/N: Late this summer, I rekindled an old love affair with Four Brothers...and I've been wallowing in it ever since. I had forgotten how much I love the dynamics between Bobby and Jack, and decided to explore how their undeniably close relationship developed after Jack first joined the Mercer family.


He's a good kid. He just needs an older brother. ~ Evelyn Mercer


Jack had been in the Mercer house for almost three weeks now, but Evelyn still cautioned her other boys to be careful with him – no teasing or roughhousing – while the skittish eight-year old slowly became more familiar with the dynamics of their family...a process that was especially challenging since Jack didn't know what it was like to actually belong to a family.

Evelyn had tried to explain, but Jack had just blinked at her with those big blue eyes; the child seeming confused by the concept and wary of her promise that he was safe with them.

As the days turned into weeks, Evelyn felt herself becoming discouraged when Jack would continue to sit alone. The eight-year old tucked in the corner of the living room while watching with wide eyes as his new, much bigger, much older brothers wrestled and hurled insults at each other – a daily occurrence in the Mercer household and a reflection of brotherly love among the Mercer boys.

But Jack often appeared visibly upset by the rough behavior and raised voices, never attempting to interact with his brothers and never allowing them too close.

Because unlike Evelyn's other sons, Jack was abnormally withdrawn. He shied away from touch and preferred to communicate without words – shaking or nodding his head...pointing...shrugging. He spoke only when it was absolutely necessary, having offered only a single word in a barely-heard-whisper the two times he had actually talked over the past three weeks.

Jack flinched at loud noises and rarely made eye contact, existing in a perpetual state of fear and anxiety.

And he was skinny – heartbreakingly skinny from years of malnourishment. His frail body and pale skin marked with physical scars that were nothing compared to the emotional wounds still healing within.

At just eight-years old, Jack was the proverbial product of too many years caught in the system. His young life spent bouncing from home to home where he was constantly yelled at or beaten...or most often, both.

Not to mention the neglect and other forms of abuse...

Evelyn had been a social worker for almost 20 years and had seen it all. But she had cried when she had read Jack's file; had cried over every report, over every photo of this once bloody and bruised and broken child.

But he was her child now.

And no one would ever hurt him again.

Evelyn had adopted Jack quicker than she had her other three sons, and he was younger than any of them had been when she had first brought them home.

Bobby and Jerry and Angel had all been teenagers – had all been juvenile delinquents, if she was honest with herself.

But Jack was just a child, just a sweet little boy who had already suffered so much and been treated so horribly for the majority of his short life.

A good kid at the mercy of bad people.

It broke her heart.

Evelyn's motherly nature wanted to hug Jack, wanted to hold him and promise everything was going to be okay now.

But Jack often panicked when she tried to touch him.

And although that also broke her heart, Evelyn allowed him his space, keeping her distance and watching Jack with an ache in her chest as she hoped he would eventually come around.

Though it was hard to say when, or even if, that would happen...

After the years of abuse he had suffered at previous foster homes, Jack was reluctant to believe that he was a true member of the Mercer family; that he was wanted, and would be loved and protected and never intentionally hurt.

As the first week passed, Evelyn began to fear she would never be able to truly connect with her youngest. While her other sons acted out, Jack drew in...and for the first time in a long time, Evelyn had doubted her ability to reach one of her children.

It seemed an impossible task to accomplish alone, which was why she had recruited the help of her oldest.

Nothing got past Bobby, and Evelyn knew he had noticed the way Jack kept to himself...while her other two sons had seemed somewhat oblivious to the child's behavior. Both Jerry and Angel too preoccupied with their girlfriends and falling victim to the general teenaged tendency to be self-absorbed.

But Evelyn had seen Bobby watching Jack more than once and knew her oldest could relate to the child, could understand the fear and doubt that caused the eight-year old to keep his distance from the rest of them...even if a younger Bobby had demonstrated that fear and doubt in a completely different way.

Evelyn remembered all too well the first few months after she had adopted Bobby and could still recall him deliberately and repeatedly causing trouble at school, in the neighborhood, anywhere he could as a way to test her, to see if she had what it took to love a "fuck-up" like him.

And every single time, Evelyn had come through, had kept loving Bobby no matter what.

But Jack didn't know that yet.

Jack didn't know Evelyn would love him – that she already loved him.

Jack didn't know he could trust her – that he could trust them.

Because in Jack's experience, he couldn't trust anybody...and Bobby couldn't blame the kid for being standoffish, not after what Evelyn had shared with him about Jack's past.

Jerry and Angel didn't know – though if they had paid attention, they might have suspected it given the way Jack acted...along with the scars and fading bruises on his thin arms.

But since Bobby was the oldest, Evelyn had confided in him when he had walked in the kitchen late one night and had found her crying over the kid's file.

Bobby had listened to the details in rare silence and had glanced at the photos before Evelyn had shoved them back in the folder.

But Bobby had seen them, had seen the things those sick fucks had done to this little boy...this little boy who was now Bobby's little brother.

Bobby had clenched his jaw against the instant rage.

No wonder Jack didn't want to be touched.

No wonder he didn't talk.

No wonder he was scared and withdrawn.

For the majority of his life, Jack had been beaten and mistreated in ways Bobby didn't even want to think about.

"We're not going to dwell on the past," Evelyn had told Bobby, recognizing his lethal expression and knowing her oldest was prone to violence. "Bobby. I mean it," she had warned, not wanting him to go in search of Jack's former foster parents and deliver his own form of justice.

But Bobby had said nothing, not making any promises he couldn't keep.

Evelyn had sighed. "Fine. I know you're going to do whatever you want to do..."

Because that was how Bobby operated.

"...but just remember," Evelyn had added in that way she always did when she wanted to make a point. "The thing Jack needs most right now isn't you losing your temper and throwing fists or firing weapons."

She had paused, making it clear she knew Bobby carried a gun.

Bobby had shown no reaction.

Evelyn had continued. "What Jack needs most right now is a big brother."

Bobby had pulled a face at the implied assignment and extra responsibility. "Ma..."

"Don't 'Ma' me," Evelyn had scolded as if Bobby was ten-years old instead of 20. "I've seen you watching him already."

Bobby had shrugged. "So? That makes me his keeper?"

Like Bobby didn't have enough to do with work and hockey and watching Jerry and Angel's backs...now he was expected to bond with this kid he barely knew, this kid who never spoke and was always a breath away from a panic attack?

Fan-fucking-tastic.

Evelyn had arched an eyebrow at Bobby's sharp tone and heavy sigh, knowing her son's thoughts...but also knowing despite his bitching, Bobby would watch out for Jack.

Because there was something about the kid, something that was drawing Bobby in and giving him a purpose even if Bobby hadn't realized it yet.

But Evelyn had realized almost immediately that her oldest and her youngest would balance each other and would become closer because of that balance – Jack anchoring Bobby and calming his ever-present rage, while Bobby protected Jack and soothed his constant fear.

Their bond as brothers would be unbreakable...but first, they had to break through each other's walls.

Still sitting across the table from Bobby, Evelyn had smiled at the thought.

Bobby had sighed once more when he had noticed her expression.

"What?"

Evelyn had shaken her head as she had straightened the contents of Jack's folder.

"Nothing."

Bobby had groaned, knowing from experience that look on his mother's face meant something.

"Ma..."

"Nothing," Evelyn had repeated. "I just want you to remember what we talked about tonight," she had commented and had squeezed Bobby's hand before leaving the kitchen with Jack's file.

And just like that, Evelyn had officially made Bobby both Captain and Keeper of Team Jack...whether he liked it or not.

Bobby had snorted at the turn of events as he had continued to sit at the table, further absorbing her statement and wondering how the hell he was supposed to form a relationship with a kid who was 12 years younger than him and scared of his own shadow.

But Bobby knew Evelyn was counting on him….which was why he started keeping an eye on Jack more regularly, feeling strangely protective of the kid and trying to decide the best way to help Jack understand that he was safe now. He was a Mercer and was Bobby's little brother, and nobody was going to hurt him – or even touch him – unless they had a death wish.

It was as simple as that.

But Jack was complicated and continued to keep to himself.

...which meant the second week passed exactly like the first.

And the third week was following the same pattern until Bobby came home long after midnight on Thursday, still buzzing from his shift of bouncing punks out of a local nightclub.

Getting paid to be an asshole was a sweet gig, and Bobby was a natural...but it usually took at least an hour after he returned home to lose the adrenaline rush violence often gave him...which usually led to Bobby raiding the kitchen and then watching TV as he waited to crash.

Tonight was no different.

Food first...TV later...bed whenever.

Bobby nodded in agreement with that plan and headed to the kitchen, soundlessly opening and closing cabinets and drawers as he made a sandwich, and then pausing when he heard one of the stairs creak around the corner.

Bobby arched an eyebrow at the rookie mistake – because he and Jerry and Angel knew exactly which creaky steps to avoid when sneaking around the house at night.

And since Evelyn rarely came downstairs this late, that only left Jack as the one who was out of bed and about to make an appearance.

"This should be interesting..." Bobby commented to himself and ducked around the other corner, out of sight and waiting.

Within seconds, Jack entered the kitchen, pausing in the doorway and glancing around as if he suspected he had an audience.

Around the corner, Bobby remained motionless, watching Jack and frowning when he realized the kid was still fully dressed except for his shoes.

But Jack's hair was disheveled in such a way that suggested he had been in bed at some point.

...which meant what?

Jack was still sleeping in his regular clothes?

Apparently so, even though Evelyn had told him multiple times that he could change into the sleep clothes she had bought him.

Kind of like she had also told Jack multiple times that he didn't have to steal and hide his own toothbrush anymore...

Bobby shook his head, freshly puzzled by the mystery of his new little brother...and freshly pissed that the kid had endured such a fucked-up life until now.

Because what other eight-year olds didn't know what pajamas were and guarded their toothbrushes like prized possessions?

Bobby clenched his jaw against the renewed anger, reminding himself to let it go as he watched Jack slide across the kitchen floor in his socks and approach the fridge.

Bobby twitched a smile, vaguely amused as it seemed he wasn't the only Mercer who enjoyed a late night snack.

But did Jack come downstairs every night like this?

Bobby shrugged.

If he did, who could blame the kid?

It wasn't like Jack had been well fed throughout this life.

And it wasn't like Evelyn hadn't told the kid that he was welcome to anything he wanted in the fridge.

In fact, Evelyn would be overjoyed if she knew Jack was eating extra food.

Bobby knew she worried about how thin and bony he was.

But Jack just stood there, staring at the food in the fridge. His face illuminated by the glow within as his gaze flickered from shelf to shelf.

The eight-year old smiled, having never before seen so many foods in so many colors – bright green broccoli that looked like miniature trees...red tomatoes, orange carrots, white milk, soft yellow butter, deep purple grapes, blue juice boxes...

It was overwhelming.

So many colors.

So many choices.

So many things Jack couldn't even identify.

Like this...

The eight-year old tilted his head in thought as he stared at the large, pale orange fruit before grabbing it and crossing to the table, allowing the fridge door to shut behind him.

The kitchen instantly darkened, now only lit by the moonlight filtering through the curtain over the window above the sink.

Still out of sight around the corner, Bobby watched, strangely fascinated as Jack sat in one of the chairs and began rolling the grapefruit across the table like it was a ball. The kid occasionally stopping to rub the texture of the fruit and then lifting it to his face to examine it more closely.

Bobby narrowed his eyes, suspecting Jack had no idea what he was playing with.

Had the eight-year old never seen a grapefruit?

If that was true, it was somehow sad.

But Jack was certainly conducting a thorough investigation as he tried to figure out what he was holding, and Bobby felt an unexpected swell of pride that this smart kid was his little brother.

Several seconds later, Jack began humming and whispering lyrics to himself. The eight-year old quietly singing in the darkness as he alternated between rolling the grapefruit across the table and drumming out a beat in the air.

Bobby smiled, having learned more about Jack's personality in the past few minutes than he had in the past three weeks...and he had to admit, he liked this kid.

Sure, he was quiet and skittish and had a shitload of issues.

But there was something about Jack that brought out a different side to Bobby – a calmer, more patient side that Bobby didn't even know existed, though he could feel that side of himself emerge as he continued to watch Jack.

And it was then that Bobby knew this kid would become his weak spot.

Evelyn had likely known that as well, which was why their mother had made Bobby the Captain and Keeper of Team Jack several nights ago.

Bobby gave a silent snort at the memory and stepped forward, wanting to better hear what Jack was singing.

But Jack instantly hushed, his body rigid in the chair as his attention focused on the sound of a creaking floorboard around corner near the other kitchen door.

His cover blown, Bobby hissed an f-bomb as he now stood in the doorway, staring at Jack.

Jack stared back at him with those huge eyes, looking absolutely terrified.

Bobby sighed and stepped into the kitchen, keeping his movements slow and deliberate as if he was approaching a wounded animal.

Kind of like Evelyn always approached Jack with her hands out, palms up to show she wasn't a threat...

That was how they had to deal with this kid.

And that was why Bobby was moving slow and easy.

Because he could see Jack was ready to bolt and he didn't want to scare the kid any more than he already had.

"Hey, Jack..." Bobby greeted, feeling odd that he was trying not to sound or look threatening since usually that was all he tried to do.

In this neighborhood, reputation and intimidation was everything.

But now, Bobby only wanted to put the kid at ease.

"It's late," Bobby commented as if Jack didn't know it was well past midnight. "Why are you still dressed? And why are you out of bed?"

Jack didn't answer but dropped the grapefruit like it had suddenly burned him, the fruit plopping on the table's surface and rolling a few inches toward the edge.

"M'sorry," Jack apologized before squeezing his eyes shut and shrinking back in his chair. His head slightly turned, his arms locked on either side of him as though he was bracing for a blow to the face.

Bobby blinked at the sound of Jack's voice – the kid actually spoke! – but then frowned at Jack's reaction.

"You think I'm gonna hit you?"

Jack opened one eye at the question, his body still stiff as he waited for the slap he was sure would come.

What was Bobby waiting for?

Was he one of those who liked to withhold the first punch, who liked to delay the initial blow because he knew waiting for the beating to begin only made Jack's heart beat faster...was Bobby one of those?

Jack hoped not as he swallowed against the familiar fear rising in his throat.

Bobby shook his head. "I'm not gonna hit you, Jack," he told the kid and walked over to the counter, grabbing his plated sandwich.

Jack tilted his head, having not even noticed everything spread over the counter until now.

...which meant Bobby had been in the kitchen before Jack, so how long had Bobby been watching him?

"Nobody will ever hit you again," Bobby continued, crossing to the table. "You hear me?"

Jack opened his other eye and blinked up at Bobby.

In a flash of memory, Bobby saw the photos in Jack's file – the ones zoomed in on Jack's face to show both of his eyes bruised and almost swollen shut as a result of some fucker thinking it was okay to beat the shit out of a little kid.

Bobby clenched his jaw.

Jack continued to blink up at him in the silence that had settled between them.

"Yeah, you hear me," Bobby confirmed, knowing by the look on Jack's face that he was listening. "But if anybody ever does hit you, you come tell me and I'll take care of it. Got it?"

It wasn't an empty promise.

Bobby meant every word.

Just the thought of someone hurting Jack made the big brother want to fucking kill somebody, to just fire his gun in that fucker's face until that fucker was fucking dead.

Fuck!

Bobby clenched his jaw even tighter against the rage he could feel beginning to overwhelm him.

But Jack just continued to blink up at him, sitting still and quiet...which somehow made Bobby feel still and quiet.

Weird.

Bobby snorted and crossed to the fridge, his rage ebbing away as he grabbed a drink before coming back to the table.

Jack didn't move as Bobby sat beside him.

"Want some?" Bobby asked, gesturing to his sandwich and surprising himself at the offer since he never shared his food.

Jerry and Angel had learned that lesson the hard way over the years.

Yet here Bobby was, volunteering to share with this kid he barely knew.

What the fuck?

Jack stared at the sandwich on the plate but shook his head.

Bobby shrugged and took a bite, chewing slowly as he watched Jack watch him.

Jack squirmed under Bobby's gaze and swallowed audibly, his feet swinging back and forth as he resisted the urge to run upstairs, to hide in his room and lock the door.

That was his instinct – his survival instinct.

But maybe that instinct was wrong this time.

Because Jack had just known that Bobby would hit him when Bobby had caught him out of bed, had caught him taking food...but Bobby hadn't touched him.

Bobby hadn't even raised his hand to him.

Even now, Bobby was just sitting there.

He didn't look angry or like he was trying to trick Jack. He didn't look like he was pretending everything was okay only so he could catch Jack off guard and slap the shit out of him later.

Jack knew how that game worked, and it didn't seem like Bobby was playing it.

In fact, none of the Mercers had played any of the usual mind games with him over the past few weeks. And they hadn't hit him or yelled at him or starved him, which was good...but confusing.

Jack sighed and glanced at the grapefruit in front of him.

Bobby finished the last few bites of his sandwich, watching as Jack cautiously reached for the fruit and began rolling it back and forth again.

"Why do you keep doing that?"

Jack flinched at the question and froze, staring wide-eyed at Bobby.

Bobby scowled. "Relax, kid. Jesus..." He shook his head. "You need to chill the fuck out. You're not in trouble, okay? And nobody's gonna hit you. I'm just wondering why you keep playing with that like it's a ball or some shit. Are you planning to eat it or what?"

Jack hesitated to respond but then shook his head.

"Okay," Bobby drawled, wanting to understand this kid. "Why not? Why take food unless you're gonna eat it?"

Jack stared down at his hands now resting in his lap.

"Hey..." Bobby called. "Look at me."

Jack didn't respond.

"I know you hear me," Bobby told the kid. "And this not-making-eye-contact bullshit is gonna stop. So look at me."

Bobby gave Jack a few seconds.

Nothing.

Bobby rolled his eyes. "Hey..." he repeated and nudged the kid's shoulder, not surprised when Jack almost jumped out of his chair at the touch.

But at least the eight-year old was now staring straight at him.

Bobby snorted a laugh. "That's better."

Jack blinked at him with those huge eyes, once again pushed back in his chair as though he was afraid of Bobby's next move.

"Relax," Bobby soothed, having a feeling he was going to say that a lot to this kid throughout their lives.

There was a beat of silence.

Bobby gestured at the fruit between them. "Do you even know what that is?"

Jack's gaze flickered to the fruit, then back to Bobby.

"It's a grapefruit," Bobby informed, feeling oddly important that he was teaching this kid something. "Ma eats them for breakfast sometimes."

He paused, still looking at Jack.

"You ever seen one?"

Jack shook his head.

Bobby nodded, having expected that answer...and knowing if Jack had never seen a grapefruit, then he had certainly never eaten one, either.

But that was about to change.

Bobby twitched a smile at his idea and reached over, grabbing the grapefruit and crossing to the counter.

As he stood there, he could feel Jack watching him. The kid staring at his back as he peeled the fruit and sliced it into sections before cupping the sections and spreading them on the table in front of Jack.

Jack wrinkled his nose.

Bobby chuckled. "Don't knock it 'til you try it," he advised and handed one of the pieces to Jack. "Here," he told the eight-year old, wondering where the instinct to take care of this kid had suddenly come from.

A few seconds passed before Jack accepted the slice of grapefruit.

Bobby counted it as a victory and resumed his seat, watching as Jack cautiously smelled and then licked the juice dribbling down his fingers.

The eight-year old's face twisted at the unfamiliar flavor on his tongue.

Bobby chuckled again. "You like it?"

Jack smacked his lips like he wasn't sure and glanced at Bobby.

Bobby sat there beside him, watching as Jack slid one of the slices across the table, wordlessly inviting him to join in the snack.

Bobby blinked, surprised by how happy such a small gesture made him feel.

But this was a huge step in getting Jack to open up and interact, and Bobby smiled again as he accepted the slice of fruit.

"Guess misery loves company, huh?" he quipped, suspecting Jack didn't like the initial taste of the grapefruit and wanted Bobby to join him when he actually ate it.

Jack lowered his head, once again shy and skittish.

Bobby's smile lingered.

Jack fidgeted in his chair before bringing the slice of grapefruit to his mouth and taking a bite, his face contorting once more at the strong citrus taste.

Bobby laughed, feeling another twinge of affection for this kid.

Jack's eyes squinted as he swallowed the mouthful of grapefruit.

"You like it?"

Jack licked his lips and seemed to consider the question.

Bobby waited.

Jack finally nodded as he took another bite.

"Good," Bobby replied and ate his own slice, feeling strangely honored that he was here while Jack experienced a first in his life.

They continued to eat in silence until all the grapefruit was gone.

Bobby leaned back in his chair, watching Jack press his sticky fingers together as the kid's expression turned both intense and vacant.

In the weeks he had watched Jack, Bobby knew this was a common expression and always happened remarkably fast.

Everything would be fine...and then Jack would just be gone somewhere in his mind.

Somewhere dark, if Bobby had to guess.

"What do you think about when you look like that?"

Jack startled at the question and turned his intense gaze toward Bobby.

Bobby stared back, impressed by his own patience.

But he had all night to sit there, all night to hear whatever this kid had to say.

Jack just had to talk to him.

Jack shrugged instead.

Bobby shook his head, not giving up that easy. "Jack..." He paused. "What do you think about?"

Jack sighed and opened his mouth several times before he actually spoke. "I don't know," he finally whispered. "Stuff."

Bobby nodded. "Bad stuff?"

Tears instantly welled in the eight-year old's eyes.

Bobby nodded again, having his answer and knowing this was his chance to get through to his new little brother.

"You gotta let that shit go, Jackie," he told the kid, surprised by the nickname.

But Jack didn't seem to notice as he shook his head, rejecting Bobby's advice...because it wasn't that easy.

"I know," Bobby agreed, having his own share of shit that he needed to let go. "I know it's hard. I know it's really fucking hard 'cause you've been through some really bad shit."

And Bobby had been through the system enough himself to know that not everything that had happened in those foster homes had been documented in Jack's file.

...which meant there were things Jack had endured that only Jack knew about.

The kid's frightened, haunted expression confirmed it.

Bobby sighed, wishing he had been there to protect him.

Jack blinked, jarring loose a few tears as he continued to hold Bobby's gaze.

"It's over now," Bobby assured about Jack's past and felt something twist in his chest as he watched more tears roll down Jack's cheeks. "I promise. You're safe. All that other shit is over, Jack. It's over."

Jack inhaled a shaky breath and leaned forward, unexpectedly reaching for Bobby.

Bobby froze, unsure what to do with a crying eight-year old who was suddenly climbing in his lap.

But the uncertainty didn't last.

In the next instant, Bobby's big brother instinct kicked in, and he felt himself relax, felt his gentler side emerge. That side rarely seen or experienced by anyone, that side no one could ever reach...except this kid.

This standoffish kid who was now clinging to him and sobbing a lifetime of hurt.

Bobby took a measured breath – Jack's breakdown affecting him more than he had expected – and wrapped his arms around the frail and fragile eight-year old, surprised by how natural it felt to hold this kid.

"It's okay," he murmured, feeling Jack's small hands fist the back of his shirt.

Bobby held the kid tighter in response.

"You're okay, Jackie," he soothed, not even realizing he had used that nickname again.

Jack continued to cry, his face buried in Bobby's shoulder.

Bobby continued to sit there, holding his little brother and wondering how Jack had gotten into his heart so quick and deep.

But it seemed the connection was mutual.

After all, Jack had reached for him.

Jack was trusting him.

Jack needed him.

Bobby blinked at the realization and felt a renewed protectiveness towards the crying child sitting in his lap.

As the minutes ticked by, Bobby lost track of time, having no idea how long they had sat there in the dark kitchen before Jack began to settle beneath his touch, the kid's back shuddering as Bobby rubbed a slow circle between his shoulder blades.

Jack's breath hiccupped over his lingering tears, and Bobby could feel the exhausted eight-year old leaning more heavily against him.

"Hey..." Bobby called, soft and quiet – two words that didn't typically describe Bobby Mercer.

Bobby gave a silent snort, vaguely amused by his drastic personality shift caused by this kid still sitting in his lap.

"Hey..." Bobby repeated and lifted his shoulder, encouraging Jack to sit up and look at him.

And surprisingly...it worked.

Within a few seconds, Jack was blinking at him with those big blue eyes.

Bobby stared at the kid, unable to resist the urge to push Jack's bangs off his forehead.

"You hair is so fucking ridiculous."

And it was.

This floppy, feathery, spiky mess that somehow perfectly suited Jack.

Bobby shook his head and thumbed a few tears from Jack's lashes.

"Are we done with this crying and hugging bullshit?" he asked, the harsh bluntness of his question in stark contrast to the gentle affection in his gesture.

Jack blinked and frowned, startled by Bobby's tone...until he recognized Bobby's expression.

The eight-year old quirked a shaky smile, realizing his brother was teasing him in that gruff way he had seen Bobby tease Jerry and Angel over the past few weeks.

Bobby smiled back, knowing Jack was more sensitive and would always need to be treated a little differently than he treated his other two brothers...but at least the kid could take a joke.

Jack nodded. "We're done."

"Good," Bobby replied. "'Cause we're missing the hockey game."

"It's too late for hockey."

"It's never too late for hockey," Bobby corrected and eased Jack off his lap before standing and deciding he would leave the kitchen in a mess.

Because right now, Jack was more important.

Jack...this kid who was now talking to him and looking at him and actually following him into the living room.

Bobby smiled, over the fucking moon about the progress they had made tonight.

He just hoped it lasted.

He hoped Jack continued to let him in...and would eventually let all of them in - Evelyn and Jerry and Angel.

But one milestone at a time...

Bobby nodded at the reminder and grabbed the remote before sprawling on the couch.

Jack sat beside him, not too close...but closer than he normally would.

Bobby's smile lingered as he flipped through the channels, then gestured at the television across the room.

"See? Hockey."

Jack didn't respond but watched the players skate back and forth.

"You ever played?"

Like Bobby didn't already know the answer...

Jack shook his head.

"Can you skate?"

Jack shook his head again.

"I bet you can," Bobby countered. "You just need somebody to teach you."

Jack glanced at Bobby.

Bobby nodded, confirming the kid's suspicion that he would be the one teaching Jack to skate.

"All Mercers play hockey, Jack. That means you, too. Might help make a man out of you..."

Jack pulled a face at the comment and rolled his eyes.

Bobby laughed, surprised and happier than he should be that the little shit had just rolled his eyes at him.

But the gesture was classic little brother, and Bobby was so fucking happy this kid was finally coming out of his shell.

A comfortable silence settled between them as the game rumbled onscreen, the living room bathed in the television's flickering glow.

Halfway through the second period, Jack began to fade; his blinks becoming longer as he gradually leaned closer to Bobby.

By the end of the second period, Jack was asleep, his head resting on Bobby's arm.

Bobby twitched a smile, easing his arm from under Jack and settling the eight-year old against his side like the kid belonged there.

Because he did belong there.

Jack belonged beside Bobby, safe and sound.


END