The first time I'd seen him vulnerable was when I was sixteen.
It had happened roughly a week after the volleyball game incident, when Grant still hadn't shown up to school. I'd heard whispers in the hallways about him – that his face was swollen beyond recognition or that he'd lost his sight in one eye. Or that he'd lost it in both eyes. That he'd never be able to walk again or use his left hand. And with each whisper came the cold stares, burning into me as I'd maneuver my way through the sea of bodies. He'd be at my side, of course, making even strides without a word, his face an unreadable mask.
"What did you do?" I whispered to him, clutching my books tighter to my chest as I ignored the frigid gazes of my fellow peers.
He ignored the question, continuing his even pacing until we made it to the front doors of the building. It wasn't until we stepped out into the brisk early afternoon air that he'd responded.
"I don't know what you mean," he said. A ghost of a smile played at the corner of his mouth but he refused to meet my eyes.
"I know you did something to him," I said softly, stepping towards him. "Everyone knows you did, Jack. Don't you see the way they look at us?"
His cold indifference hung heavy between us and when he started moving forward, his long legs eating up pavement much quicker than my own, the flicker of a smile had disappeared. I followed him in earnest, jogging lightly to keep up with his pace. "Why won't you answer me?" I pressed, my lungs tight from the exertion and my shoulders sore from the straps of my bag. "Jack – " I coughed. "slow down."
His pace never faltered, the rhythm of his stride pounding against the cold concrete of the sidewalk. It was only when I stopped to catch my breath and call out to him that he stopped. His wide shoulders visibly stiffened and for that moment he was immobile, his back high and proud to me and the incessant clacking of his footsteps disappearing into the wind.
He turned slowly then, but it wasn't to look at me. As the lingering burn in my lungs slipped away, I found my gaze following his. And then they emerged from a shrub directly behind me, the three of them, as tall and ominous as my friend. Their silhouettes leaked over the ground and blocked out some of the light of the sinking sun, the dark shapes stretching out to me and brushing against the tips of my shoes. I didn't immediately recognize them. All three were bulky and dressed in smart cardigans and dark jeans, sporting the same neatly-combed dark hairstyles. But when the slightly heavier one in the middle grinned, his teeth sharp and shark-like, I felt my heart flip in my chest. The two beside him were mere clones of one another, indistinguishable and forgettable. But as I looked at the middle brute, his smile widening, I knew. No one could mistake the crooked canine in his smile.
"Hey Napier," he called out, his eyes flickering to the leaner boy standing just ahead of me. "I've been looking for you."
I turned to look at my friend quickly, the throbbing pulse in my neck moving up into my skull. Jack still stood immobile, his eyes darkening to an impossible black. He remained quiet, his focus dead ahead.
"Word around school is that your little friend here was involved in a minor accident with Grant last week," the boy continued, stepping forward. I moved back with his motion without thinking, pulling my light jacket closer to my body. "Not sure if you're aware, but Grant's been incapacitated since then." He stopped, the smile disappearing from his broad face. And then his eyes darkened, too, matching Jack's with relentless intensity. "He also happens to be a close friend of mine."
Jack was silent as Todd continued his slow, predatory movements forward. "And I don't let my close friends - "
"Stop it, Todd."
The words bubbled from my throat before I could stop them, my fingers coming up to press against my lips. The large boy's gaze shifted to me then, settling harshly and burning in a way I'd grown accustomed to. I inhaled quickly, shakily. "Just leave us alone. He didn't do anything."
Todd considered me for a long moment. The sound of a few stray leaves brushing by drifted between us, but nothing more. I shuffled awkwardly from one foot to the other, dropping my focus to the scuffed tips of my sneakers. Keeping my attention there, I traced the lines of dried mud and the faded streaks of green from the summer before, and focusing on the filth smeared over my shoe was a brief, blessed distraction from the fact that I was a liar.
"Well I don't think this is any of your business," Todd cooed back, taking a step closer. I kept my eyes downward, even as I could feel his body heat radiating directly in front of me and see the tops of his own spotless shoes. "Why don't you run off and let the big boys play?"
There was a fleeting moment that I could see the flesh of his sausage-like fingers nearing me, hovering over my lower forearm before curling themselves there. The warmth of his hand soaked through the thin layer of my sleeve, spreading like a poison, and as quickly as it had settled on me, it was gone.
Todd was thrown backwards, his large frame stumbling over and crumpling to the ground in an ungraceful heap. And in his place stood Jack, his tall frame providing a much different kind of heat as he remained in front of me. He turned to give me one long, unreadable expression, and while his eyes were still bottomless coals burning in his sockets, there was a softness in the way his face had relaxed.
"You fucking freak," a groan rang out. The gentleness on Jack's face quickly faded before he turned his attention back to the bully splayed out at his feet. Todd was cradling his jaw with one weak palm, a single line of red trailing down over the valley of his throat and disappearing into the top of his sweater. "You're going to regret this," he continued, pushing away the hands of his minions as they tried to help him to his feet.
Jack turned again, meeting my eyes easily. His jaw tightened and his shoulders straightened only just, and I knew this was one of the only emotions he'd ever show to me. It was anticipation.
"Go home," he ordered, the bigger boy behind him slowly rising to unsteady feet. Todd continued rubbing at his jaw, wiping away some of the blood that had begun to stain his expensive pullover as a string of curses fell from his lips. The two clones on either side of him were moving closer, and Jack's body stiffened considerably. "Go home," he repeated, but the words were tightly coiled in his throat and barely audible between us.
"What are you saying," I hissed back, taking one step towards him.
"You better listen to him," one of the clones quipped, "Hey, Napier! Why don't you shut your bitch up before we – "
The movement of Jack's body was quick and fluid – a brief smudge over my vision. A loud crack! followed soon thereafter and the scream that accompanied it would be something forever burned into my thoughts.
"He broke my nose!" clone one part-gasped, part-gurgled, his hands cupped over a blood-slicked gaping hole for a mouth. A fountain of deep red rushed out from his fingers, spilling over the front of his precious sweater like a broken pipe.
I was frozen, unable to move as I followed the spray of his blood down onto the cement below. The sticky red fluid splashed over the uneven surface and the cracks in the sidewalk, spilling into the empty grooves and coagulating into a thick blackness. It wasn't until I felt that familiar warmth seeping through my coat sleeve again that my trance was broken. But this warmth wasn't the thug jock pawing at my arm. It was firm and gentle and when I saw the long, elegant fingers locked over the delicate area of my wrist bone, my breath caught in my chest.
Jack stared into my face as he held my wrist, his fingers locked there. "You need to leave," he spoke slowly. His voice was calm, eerily so, and held his typical stoic indifference. But this time there was an edge to it, only subtle and fleeting in its appearance. I could see that the free hand hanging near his side had a smudge of red across his knuckles, especially as his long fingers curled into a tight fist before relaxing.
"I'm not leaving," I told him, standing firm in my place. His eyes locked on mine, anger and annoyance and something undetectable flashing behind them. But before I could assure him again that I was not leaving his side, his body was thrown forward and into me, knocking the both of us to the ground in a rough collapse. A searing pain erupted from behind my eyes as I fell to the concrete, my arm scraping against the rough surface and my skull making contact with it moments after. I blinked rapidly to clear the fog from my vision, struggling to sit up and reach for the boy who'd been thrown just a few feet next to me. I could hear something in front of me – grunting and a scuffling sound of the sort – but it wasn't until the haziness completely evaporated from my sight that I could see clearly.
I couldn't scream.
The sound was tangled in my throat as I reached forward, pain prickling at the corners of my eyes and moving through my entire body.
The last one standing of the jocks stood tall over his bloodied comrades, his leg moving in swift, brutal moments. His foot buried itself into Jack's side with each powerful thrust, his teeth bared in a snarl, and it was with the fourth or fifth kick that the scream buried in the hollow of my throat made it up and out.
"Stop it!" I gasped, pulling myself up to stand. Tears stung the lining of my eyes as I moved towards Jack, who'd been completely quiet and unmoving throughout the entire beating. The thug did not acknowledge me as he continued his assault, his foot coming down harder with each kick and his grunts becoming louder, more frantic. I neared Jack, warm liquid streaming down my face. "Please, stop!"
It wasn't until I saw his actual face that the attack came to a halt. Jack – the powerful and unmoved boy who'd never let his guard down – was completely unconscious.
My hand came up to my mouth again, trapping the scream against the warm flesh of my palm. His eyes were closed, his mouth soft slackened and opened. Messy blonde curls fell over his face and his crippled, beaten body was stretched out over the pavement like pulled taffy. Crawling forward, I reached for him with a trembling hand.
"I see his chest rising," the bully standing above us snapped. I met his eyes with a slow burning rage, my fingers clasping over Jack's in a furious hold. He looked down at me, smiling softly, a mask of insincerity. "I should have killed him for what he did to Grant."
And then he and the other two sauntered off without another word, one clutching at the still-bleeding hole in his face and the other nursing a swollen jaw. I was left with the broken body of my friend, fresh tears dripping down onto his chest.
I looked down at him, my fingers tightening around his. "Please," I whispered, leaning closer. My hand squeezed at his as I watched his face, the hot liquid in my eyes trickling down faster. "Please wake up."
In the cold autumn wind, we were alone.
I called out to him again, my voice carrying with a soft breeze. "Please wake up. Please."
And when I leaned forward, resting my forehead against his chest, I felt the steadiness of his heart thumping slowly there and a moment of calm swept over me.
"Wake up," I begged him softly, pressing my face closer into the warmth of his body. My eyes fluttered closed as I mumbled into him quietly, willing him to stir. "Wake up. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up."
When I came to, his eyes were open and peering into mine, the brown color of them lost against the black paint lining them. A slow smile spread to his mouth, yellowed teeth shining crudely under the faint lighting.
"It's about time, pumpkin. Have a nice nap?"
A/N – hope you enjoyed this update. I'm sorry for the delay, as always. Life hasn't been easy for me over the past few years.
I had to write a flashback chapter to get reacquainted with their relationship – I hope you don't mind. It's always nice to see the side of the Joker before he went completely mental (even if it's more fun writing him when he's totally batshit crazy).
On a side note, I was reading through previous chapters and cringing at times. My writing when I was 18-21/22 was really flowery and kinda "purple prose". That being said, I didn't update the previous chapters because it's kind of nice to see my writing style evolve over the years.
I think it's much cleaner now. What do you think?