AN: Jeez, its been a while. Finals were hell, and although I promised this fic a lot sooner, I spent the first few days of Christmas break sleeping my life away. Can't keep me away for too long, though! I know some of you have really been looking forward to this fic, so I hope it meets your expectations. And for those of you who read Shake Me, Wake Me, be on the lookout for its sequel. I should have the first couple of chapters ready to be posted in the near future (or, the prologue, at least, which I've had written for a while). Enjoy!
"Come on, man, let's eat, bring out that bird...I'll let you wear my jacket."
It took Jack quite a while to realize how cold it actually was outside, and even then, he realized it slowly, one body part at a time. He felt the sting at the tips of his fingers first, and upon shoving them into the pocket of his gray hoodie, noticed the way the wind bit at his nose and his cheeks. Mentally realizing that they'd be a deep shade of pink soon enough, he cursed the paleness of his skin, the way the slightest discoloration stood out so easily. His arms, now covered in goosebumps, recognized the chill mere seconds after his face, and soon enough, he felt the cold inside of him as well. Not just his skin, but his muscles, his bones, everything felt cold. Looking around, he lifted his hands out of his pockets and rubbed his arms, trying to create some friction, some heat, as he gained his bearings.
He had a fairly good idea of where he was, even though he'd been gone for a pretty long amount of time, and he walked in the direction of, what he hoped, was the house. The house. Not his house. Evelyn Mercer's house. Angel and Jerry Mercer's house. The other guy he hadn't met yet...whatever the fuck his name was...it was his house, too. It wasn't Jack's.
A week. That's how long Jack was willing to give them. It was always around a week, give or take a day, a couple of days...fuck, give or take a year, in one case...but always a week before it started. The looks. The sighs. The disappointment and the crying, the yelling and the screaming and the murmurs of oh, Jack, why do you do this and we're just trying to help and the why the fuck can't you ever do anything right.
The first couple of days had been so predictable, almost painfully so to Jack's trained twelve year old eye. The woman, Evelyn, had told him that he was going to be staying with her for a while, and he'd just come right out and asked it. How long? How long before I'm too much for you, before you can't handle the fact that I shut myself in my room all the time, and when I'm not in my room, I'm jumping out of the window and wandering around aimlessly in the middle of the night because being in one place for too long makes me nervous? How long before you can't take it, the fact that I wake up screaming and you just can't ignore it anymore?
What had unnerved Jack the most, though, was that she didn't answer. She didn't feed him the bullshit line he'd expected, the one he'd heard so many times that promised him a permanent home, a family, something unconditional. She just smiled and led him to the car, talking about dinner, about her work, about her three other sons, about Angel and Jerry and...what the fuck was his name?
The week passed with similar normalcy. Every morning, Jack woke up in his room, alone, thank God, with the door closed and the chair he'd shoved in front of it still in the same place it had been the night before. He went to school, where his skinny frame and ragged clothes made him an easy target for teasing and bullying, although he'd only gotten into one fight that week, and for a completely legitimate reason. He came home...not home, but to the Mercer's...and went to his room, lying on his bed until he was called to dinner. Angel and Jerry would talk about their days, and Evelyn would ask how his was, and he would mumble and shrug his way through dinner until he asked to be excused, retreating to his room for the rest of the night.
Until tonight. Tonight, he had a nightmare. Surprisingly, it was the first nightmare he'd had since coming to the Mercer household. It was inevitable, though, because he had them every time. He'd woken up screaming, tears and snot running down his face, sweating like he'd just run a marathon and shaking like a leaf in the wind. Bracing himself for whatever was to come next...and the worst part was not knowing what was coming, the anticipation of it all...he curled up under the covers, and soon enough, the door opened, Evelyn pushing her way into the room, past the chair, to sit on Jack's bed.
He waited, eyes closed, for...whatever it was, this time. Would it be a hard slap on the face, telling him to shut the fuck up before he woke the whole goddamn house? Would it be a touch on the arm that turned into a touch somewhere else that turned into a nightmare in its own right? Or would he be ignored completely, left alone to deal with his fear? He prayed it was the last choice. He always prayed it was the last choice.
But Evelyn hadn't done any of those things. She simply said, "Hey, look at me," and when Jack did, she held out her hands, palms upturned, in a passive gesture that left Jack reeling. "I know bad things happened to you before you came here. But you're safe now."
And that was all Jack could take. This was different, this was new, and Jack couldn't handle new. He couldn't deal with unexpected. What came after this? He didn't know, oh, God, he didn't know and it scared the shit out of him. At least he could brace himself against the blows when he knew they were coming. He could close his eyes and grit his teeth and put his mind somewhere else entirely when...when he knew that something else, that specific something else, was going to happen. But this? What was this?
So he did the only thing that made sense at the time. He pretended to be asleep, and as soon as Evelyn left, bolted out of bed and out the window as fast as his legs could carry him. He'd already scoped out all the necessary escape routes, and found that the distance from the small section of roof overhanging the porch to the ground wasn't far at all. And now he was here. Wandering around in the cold at two-thirty in the morning because he'd freaked out and needed to be able to think straight again, and to do that he needed to be alone. He could deal with the normalcy, and if Evelyn had just ignored him, it would have made things so much easier.
Jack found himself back at the Mercer's house after a while, the decision firmly made that he'd start making their lives a living hell first thing tomorrow. He'd get into fights at school, he'd talk back, slam doors, refuse to do his homework, maybe he'd even yell a little, insult somebody, because getting sent back to your social worker for something you did was a lot easier than getting sent back to your social worker for something you didn't. Jack didn't think he could bear the question anymore...the exasperated "What did you do this time?"...and not being able to answer. Not because he didn't want to say, but because he couldn't. Because he couldn't think of one thing he did wrong, and to have something to say was just easier, in the end.
However, Jack's plans were quickly thwarted when he turned the doorknob, attempting to enter the house and stopping short when he found that the door was locked. He twisted the doorknob a couple more times, thinking maybe it was stuck, before sighing and sitting down on the porch, waiting. Waiting for what, he didn't exactly know, but he figured he might as well sit while he was doing it. Waiting for someone to hear him and open the door, maybe. Waiting for his mind to process where Evelyn had told him the spare key was hidden, if there was a spare key, if he didn't just make that up. Waiting to freeze to death in the cold air, because now his teeth were starting to chatter...
Footsteps alerted him to a presence in the front yard, and he shot to his feet, arms wrapped around his stomach, eyes instinctively searching frantically for something he could use as a weapon. He didn't care if this person was going to rob the Mercers, but he heard so many times about robberies gone wrong, about innocent people getting mixed up in murders, that he figured he couldn't be too careful. He found nothing but an old boot and, desperate, grabbed it and retreated to the corner, relying on the shadows to hide his small body.
The man was grumbling to himself, a large duffel bag slung over his shoulder as he fished for something in the pocket of his worn leather jacket. Jack held his breath, gripping the boot tighter, as the man cursed softly, something shiny emerging in his hand and, just as quickly, dropping to the ground. He leaned over to pick it up, and Jack, seeing this as the perfect opportunity, chucked the boot at his head and made a mad dash for the front yard. A loud, uninhibited, "Fuck!" came from behind him, and soon enough, the man, who was much faster than Jack had anticipated, had a firm grip on his upper arm and was dragging him back towards the house.
"What the fuck do you think you're doin', you little shit?" the man growled, and Jack dug his heels into the ground, desperate to escape. However, the man was obviously much older than him, and much stronger, as well, and before Jack knew it, he was back up on the porch, pushed against the wall with one of the man's large hands against his shoulder. "Hey, kid, I'm talkin' to you!"
"I...I thought..." Jack inwardly cursed himself for stuttering, averting his eyes. "I thought you were gonna rob them."
"Rob them...what?" the man asked incredulously, fixing Jack with an exasperated look. "Do you fuckin' know who I am?"
"No," Jack said firmly.
The man sighed heavily, tone still laced with annoyance as he rolled his eyes, shaking his head and releasing Jack's shoulder. "I'm Bobby Mercer. I live here. If one of us is gonna rob the place, it's probably gonna be you."
"I'm not gonna rob them," Jack insisted, almost resentfully. "I live here, too."
"No shit?" Bobby asked, and at Jack's nod, shrugged. "No surprise, there. Ma can't help herself from takin' a new kid in every goddamn month. Let's hope she hasn't given my bed away or nothin'." He fixed Jack with an odd look, hoisting the duffel bag, which had been unceremoniously dumped to the ground during the small scuffle, back onto his shoulder. "You said you live here?"
"Then why the hell are you hidin' on the front porch throwing fuckin' shoes at people?"
Jack shrugged. "I felt like it."
"Which is a bullshit answer if I ever heard one," Bobby said, picking up the key from the ground and pushing it into the keyhole. He turned it and opened the door, throwing his bag into the house and then, surprisingly, shutting the door again, remaining outside on the porch with Jack. He crossed his arms, leaning against the wall and yawning. "So why are you really out here?"
"I got locked out," Jack stated, as if it were all too obvious. He didn't feel the need to tell this complete stranger about what had happened that night.
"Uh huh," Bobby said, tone of voice indicating that he wasn't buying a word of what Jack was saying. "And you were out at three in the mornin' because...?"
"Why were you out?" Jack asked defensively, and Bobby snorted, finding amusement in the question that Jack did not.
"Doesn't really matter why I was out, you're the kid here," Bobby said, and Jack instantly disliked the condescending air with which he delivered the words. "But if you gotta know, I just got back from Chicago. Your turn."
Jack shrugged again, not knowing what else to do as he took a seat on the steps. "I just felt like walking."
"Seriously, you don't have to feed me this crap. We've all been there."
"Been where?" Jack asked, annoyed. "And I'm not feeding you crap."
"Sure you are, but whatever, I don't give a shit," Bobby said, turning around to go back into the house. He paused at the door, looking back at Jack's hunched form. "And if you're not bullshitting, then why aren't you goin' inside?"
"The door's open." Jack turned his head to look back at Bobby, and noticed that the door was now, indeed, wide open. "You're not locked out anymore, you watched me open the door."
Jack suddenly wanted nothing to do with anyone or anything inside the house at that moment. He shook his head, turning back around to face the yard. "I just wanna stay out here."
There was a brief silence, then suddenly, something heavy hit him in the back of the head. He turned around to find Bobby's leather jacket lying behind him, and looked up at Bobby, confused. "What?"
"I'm not gonna face Ma's wrath when you catch pneumonia and die," Bobby reasoned, stepping inside the house. "Now it's not my fault."
"I don't want your coat," Jack said, and Bobby shrugged.
"Too bad." The door slammed shut and Jack shook his head, turning back around, Bobby's coat in his hands. He almost decided to push the coat aside, but another shiver racked his frame, and he decided begrudgingly to slip the jacket on. It was way too big, and smelled strongly of beer, cigarettes, and extremely cheap leather, but its warmth was instantaneous, spreading through Jack like the heat of a fire would.
For the first time all night, he felt calm, noticing that his hands weren't shaking as much anymore, his pulse wasn't racing, his legs weren't bouncing with unused energy and hidden nervousness. He leaned against the wall, resting his head against the bricks and taking a deep breath, inhaling a lungful of chilly air. Releasing the breath, he looked down at his hands, picking at the stub of a nail that was constantly bleeding from the attention it was given by Jack's mouth.
Jack couldn't tell what he felt about Bobby. His first instinct was to dislike him, because of his already apparent bad attitude. However, he couldn't honestly say that he felt a great amount of dislike for Bobby, mostly because he just met him, but partially because he couldn't find anything to really hate. His second thought was to be afraid of Bobby, because he was definitely bigger than Jack, and definitely stronger, and surprisingly faster. But he'd been alone out here with Bobby, hadn't he? And Bobby hadn't done a damn thing. And Jack had instincts, he knew when he had to be afraid of someone, and Bobby had set off none of those mental alarms.
Come to think of it, none of the Mercers had set off those mental alarms. But why? The question made Jack want to vomit, and at the same time, jump for joy. I shouldn't get my hopes up, he thought resolutely, but as he buried himself deeper into Bobby's coat, found he couldn't help it.
Getting suspended from school wasn't as hard as Jack originally suspected. Neither was pretending to have "a well of pent up anger", as his school councilor had told Evelyn when she'd come to pick him up. Although turning on his tormenters and becoming the bully instead of the bullied worked perfectly according to plan, Jack had to wonder why his teachers immediately noticed his actions, but never saw the violence directed towards him.
"I'm disappointed in you, Jack," Evelyn had told him on the way home, to which Jack shrugged nonchalantly and stared silently out the window. However, he couldn't help but feel a twinge of...something...inside his chest when she said those words, so much that when Evelyn asked if he understood why his actions were wrong, he could do nothing but nod, eyes fixed pointedly downwards and a blush coloring his cheeks.
After they'd arrived home, however, Evelyn had said nothing further to Jack about the suspension, only asking Bobby if he could keep an eye on Jack the next day while she was at work. Jack was stunned. He'd expected anger and yelling...hell, he'd even settle for some kind of tension...but everything had gone surprisingly back to normal, sending Jack from nervous to scared shitless in no time flat.
The next day, Jack woke up early and settled himself on the couch, trying to ignore Bobby as he made breakfast in the kitchen. Realizing the Mercers were much different than his other foster families, he tried desperately to think of ways to step up his game, actions that would definitely have Evelyn sending him back to his social worker. But getting suspended is pretty bad, isn't it? What else can I do?
"Hey, pipsqueak, want some bacon?"
Jack wasn't stupid. He knew Bobby's question, along with the nickname it contained, was directed at him. For one thing, he was the only one in the house and therefore the only one that could hear Bobby, who was currently holding a spatula in front of the stove. Also, Jack knew that if Bobby called either Angel or Jerry pipsqueak or anything remotely similar, he'd have hell to pay and perhaps a shiner or a new bruise to go along with his hangover.
However, Jack also knew that he didn't want any bacon. He wasn't hungry. Was that honestly such a crime? If he refused food…or really anything, for that matter…in his old homes, the result wasn't pretty. And I probably shouldn't even be refusing food, I might not get any more this week when Evelyn decides on a punishment...
"Dumbass, I'm talkin' to you"
"I…I don't…" Fuck, Jack, start over. Try again. "I mean…I guess…"
"I…I…I…" Bobby mocked with a chuckle, poking at the bacon with his spatula. "It's not that hard, kid. I think that TV's rottin' your fuckin' brain."
"I'm not watching TV," Jack responded, injecting a bit of anger into his voice as he stared down at his hands. Gotta make up for that stuttering shit. "And don't make fun of me."
Instead of looking taken aback or mad, Bobby just grinned wider. "Oh, we got ourselves a tough guy now, huh? What'cha gonna do, Jackie, come over here and kick my ass?"
Jack didn't respond, fiddling with a loose string that protruded from one of the couch cushions. He'd heard Bobby banter this way with Angel and Jerry, and secretly, he hoped that he'd be able to exchange insults with Bobby that way, too. But that's too much of a risk. What if he thinks I'm serious? What if he gets mad, starts hitting me for real? And I'm not even gonna be here for very much longer, if I keep this up...
"Come on, Cracker Jack, I don't got all day. You gonna stop bein' a little bitch and man up? Gonna take me up on my offer?"
"Shut up," Jack mumbled, his stomach starting to churn. What if he doesn't let this go?
"What's that?" Bobby asked exaggeratedly, cupping a hand around his ear without removing his eyes from the stove. "Can't hear you, princess."
Jack shut his eyes tightly, inhaling sharply. He called me princess. What the hell is that supposed to mean? Princess like a girl? Princess, like I'm pretty, like a girl? I don't wanna be pretty like a girl, last time I was pretty like a girl I was...
"Waiting, Jackie-poo, just waiting for you to…"
"Shut up!" Jack suddenly screamed, cutting Bobby off before he could say another word. This time, Bobby looked a little startled, looking up from his bacon, his spatula wielding hand hovering awkwardly over the pan. "Just shut the fuck up, already!"
I'm gonna be in so much trouble for this, Jack thought desperately, realizing he was on his feet, his shaking hands clenched at his sides. But it's better for him to be angry. Better to get the beatings than for him to think I'm pretty, to like me too much...
"What the hell is your problem, kid?" Bobby asked, regaining his composure and poking at the bacon once more. "Jesus Christ, I can't even make a fuckin' joke around here without lightin' a fire under your ass. Why don't you shit me out some diamonds, sweetheart? I bet you could, you're so fuckin' tense all the time."
"Stop it!" Jack yelled again, feeling more panic rise into his chest. Stop calling me sweetheart, princess, stop it, stop it! He looked frantically around the room, his eyes falling to rest on a glass vase that sat delicately on the bookcase. Better to get the beatings, Jack, its better, you know it is. And in a moment of split second decision making, Jack ran over to the bookcase, grabbed the vase, and chucked it at the wall as hard as he could.
"What the…?" Bobby was at a loss for words as he jogged into the living room, eyes jerking from the broken vase to Jack in a motion that looked like he was watching an extremely confusing tennis match. Finally, his eyes locked with Jack's, and the younger boy saw genuine anger in them. When he spoke, his voice was low and livid. "You better have a damn good explanation for that."
Jack swallowed thickly, willing himself to look indignant. He met Bobby's gaze with a resolute one of his own, giving a haughty shrug that made Bobby's eyes widen. "I don't."
Bobby laughed mirthlessly, crossing his arms over his chest and shaking his head. "You know, if I have to baby-sit your ass all day because you fuckin' got suspended from school, I expect you to show me a bit of goddamn respect. Ma's gonna be pissed when she gets home, and I'm sure as hell not tickled about this. Now tell me why the fuck you broke that." When Jack didn't respond, Bobby took a step towards him. "Jack…"
"Don't," Jack whimpered suddenly, his feet moving backwards of their own accord as the nearly silent plea unconsciously escaped his lips. He shut he eyes tightly, cursing his own stupidity and his pathetic body's control over his mind. The beatings are better! They're better, you know they are!
"Jack?" Bobby's feet shuffled against the carpet, his voice sounding closer than before. Jack took another step back, biting his lip and opening his eyes, watching Bobby view him with suspicion and confusion. "What?"
"Just..." Inhaling deeply, Jack shook his head. "Just don't."
"Don't what?" Another step closer, palms upturned.
Jack's heart was beating a mile a minute as his mind whirled. Every instinct in his body told him that Bobby was putting on an act and to get the hell out before it was too late. However, something else was telling him that Bobby's confusion was genuine, that he actually wasn't going to hurt Jack.
"Are you..." Jack whispered, looking Bobby square in the eye. "Are you..."
"Am I what?"
Bobby took one step closer, and immediately Jack's resolve snapped. Pushing past the older man in a blur of movement, he dashed through the kitchen and out the front door as fast as he could, sprinting away from the house and not looking back for a second, even as Bobby yelled his name.
Jack didn't stop running until he was sufficiently winded, legs feeling like jello as he slowed down to a brisk walk. He hadn't even realized where has feet had taken him until he noted a familiar building in the distance. The shelter...I must've been running for a long time.
He stopped abruptly, staring ahead with his breath wheezing in and out of his chest, creating clouds of condensation before his eyes. I could just go back right now, Jack reasoned silently. I could go back to the shelter, lie to my social worker, tell her that they hate me, beg her to let me leave...but who's going to believe me?
At the familiar voice, Jack spun around, hands clenched at his sides as Bobby's form came into view, leaning against his car and staring at Jack with a slight smirk on his face.
"Oh, don't look so surprised," Bobby said with a roll of his eyes. "You run slow. And we're all so goddamn predictable. Don't you think I ever ran away? Where do you think I went, huh? Same place, Jackie-o, same fuckin' place."
"I'll go somewhere else, then," Jack insisted, trying to make his voice sound strong and even. "Somewhere you can't find me."
"Oh, I'll find ya, kiddo," Bobby laughed, erasing any threat the words could've contained. "I know every trick in the book. Like I said, we've all been there." He took a step towards Jack, who backed up, eyes darting over his shoulder and poised to run. Bobby stopped immediately, hands turned up in surrender. "Okay, okay. I'm not movin'."
"Why are you here?"
Bobby shrugged. "Ma kinda likes you. She'd be pretty pissed if I lost ya."
Jack shook his head. "She doesn't like me. None of you like me."
"Oh yeah? Says who?"
"Says everyone," Jack said, stuffing his hands in his pockets and kicking at a piece of gravel. "I'm a hassle."
"That's for sure," Bobby breathed, grinning when Jack shot him a disdainful look. "Hey, I'm not the one who's gettin' suspended and breakin' shit."
"Then why don't you just get rid of me?"
Bobby snorted. "Are you kidding me? The stuff you're doin' is kiddie shit. I swear, the cops were already after me when I was your age. And you think Ma's gonna dump you for causing a little fight at school? Shit, Jackie, you're gonna have to do better than that."
Unexpectedly, Jack felt his eyes watering at Bobby's words. He wrapped his arms around his chest, lowering himself to the ground without glancing towards the other man. Hearing Bobby begin to walk closer, he felt his body tense up, but hopelessly had no desire to run away. There's no escaping him...there's no escaping this...
"Do you wanna leave?" Jack was surprised to find Bobby lowering himself to the ground in front of him, cross legged and trying to meet his gaze. "Cause if you do, Ma's not gonna make you stay. Just say the word, man, and you're gone."
Jack risked lifting his head slightly. "What?"
"It'll save us all a lot of grief if you cut the crap now and just ask to leave. If you're not happy, Ma ain't happy, and if Ma ain't happy, nobody's happy. Understand?"
"Do you want me to leave?" Jack asked timidly, eyes darting back to the ground.
"Fuck, kid." Bobby's voice came out in a whoosh of air, causing Jack's long hair to rustle against his neck and making him shiver. "Just come back, alright? I know my word doesn't mean shit to you right now...hell, nobody's word meant shit to me either...but it ain't as bad as you're makin' it. Ma's gonna give you the best she can, you know?"
Jack shook his head. "I don't."
Bobby opened his mouth to say something, but remained speechless, taken aback by Jack's honesty. Scratching the back of his neck awkwardly, Bobby took his other hand and titled Jack's chin up with a finger. Jack met his eyes, a strong desire to appear brave coursing through him, but couldn't stop the instinctive flinch that followed. Seeing this, Bobby lowered his hands, shoulders slumping. "That bad, huh?"
"What?" Jack's head titled to the side, and Bobby smiled solemnly at the innocent gesture, shaking his head.
"Jack, listen to me, okay? Just for a second, and then you can run on back to your social worker if you want, alright?" Jack took a deep breath and nodded, continuing to stare at Bobby with a mixture of intense concentration and bewilderment. "We got the shit end of the deal. And it's pretty goddamn easy to look around you and think everyone's out to get ya. And most people are...but some aren't. Ma's not. I'm still hangin' around, right?"
At Jack's silence, Bobby continued. "And how the hell are you supposed to trust me? I've got fuckin' trouble written all over me, don't I?" Jack nodded hesitantly, and Bobby laughed loudly, starling Jack and causing him to both jump and attempt a wan smile at the older man's mirth. "Yeah, I know, I know. I can't make you trust me. I wouldn't trust me, either. But trust Ma. If there's anyone in this fuckin' shithole of a city you can trust, it's Evelyn Mercer. Okay?"
"Okay," Jack mumbled, still not entirely convinced that Bobby's words were true. He'd seen his share of good actors, men and women who convinced him that they were decent people, only to show him how wrong he'd been. What if Bobby was one of them?
"Alright, I see how it is," Bobby said, standing. "I gotta resort to bribery now, huh? How bout I let you wear my jacket? Angel tried to wear my jacket last week and I gave him hell about it. How great will his face be when he sees you wearin' it?"
Jack thought long and hard about Bobby's proposal. He thought back to the last time he'd worn Bobby's jacket, on the porch in the cold, and felt that same something building inside his chest, the something that made him feel unexplainably safe and calm, that told him to trust these people. No explanations needed, no questions asked.
"Okay," Jack mumbled, hoisting himself to his feet as Bobby shrugged out of his jacket, tossing it to Jack.
"You don't get to keep it or nothin'," Bobby explained as he turned towards the car. "I want it back tonight, okay?"
"Okay," Jack repeated, slipping his arms into the sleeves and pulling the jacket tightly around him. He was once again enveloped in the mixed smells of Bobby's cologne, smoke, and worn leather, and couldn't deny how its warmth seemed to spread throughout his body, easing his nerves and slowing his breathing.
"You coming?" Jack looked up and realized Bobby was already standing at the car.
"Yeah," he replied, placing one foot in front of the other and walking slowly towards Bobby. "I'm coming."