July 8, 2013

After a solid half hour of sitting in a room that can't ever truly be his, Mike pulls himself together enough to wander back down to the kitchen. True to his word, Johnny is seated on a bar stool at the counter, apparently waiting for Mike.

"Hey." Mike announces his entrance to the kitchen.

"Mikey!" Johnny yells, grinning. Mike knows he means it as a fraternal greeting, warm and welcoming. But all Mike can hear are his mother's last words as she slipped out the creaking screen door of Pop's house. Mikey, I need to go. I'll be back someday. And Pop telling him she's leaving because of Mike. And it's all Mike's damn fault.

He shakes his head and reenters the present. "Uh." Mike clears his throat. "Let's just leave it at Mike."

Johnny, thankfully, asks no questions. He simply shrugs and points at the fridge. "All right. Food's in there and the pantry." He indicates a two-door closet.

Mike first opens the pantry, his mouth immediately watering at the largest quantity of food he's ever seen in one place. His eyes dart between cans of soup and boxes of cereal and containers of pasta and snacks like chips, Poptarts, cookies, and dried fruits, all of which had rarely entered Pop's house.

Not wanting to look greedy, Mike simply grabs a small bag of dried banana chips and a pack of Poptarts before moving over to the fridge and opening it. Glancing back at Johnny after scanning its contents, Mike asks, "Is this soy milk for everyone?"

Johnny seems to be suppressing a grin but answers, albeit too seriously, with a "Yeah, man. Why wouldn't it be?"

Mike has about forty-five seconds of peace to enjoy his breakfast before Johnny, with a mouthful of cold pizza, breaks the silence.

"So what grade are you going into?" he asks, though it sounds more like "Sowhagre arwoogoininthu?"

Mike snorts softly at the ridiculousness of his new housemate. "I'll be a freshman."

"Ha!" Johnny laughs before shoving the remainder of his pizza into his mouth all at once. "Dude, that sucks." which could easily be "Doothasacks." Fortunately, Mike is practiced in the art of interpreting slurred speech.

"Yeah, I guess." He shrugs. Mike expects it will be about the same as middle school. Filled with cliques and poorly prepared food. "The summer reading seems all right."

Johnny stares incredulously. "Dude, are you talking about To Kill a Mockingbird?"

"Yeah." Mike shrugs self-consciously, using his eyes to bore holes into the Poptart he'd been dipping in his soy milk. "I like to read," he says, slightly defensive.

Johnny throws his hands up in surrender. "Yo, man, that's cool. I just watched the movie instead."

Mike nods, regretting his admittance when Johnny asks his next question.

"So do you have a favorite book?"

His response of "Animal Farm" is interrupted by the sound of the front door swinging open and closing. A moment later, a black boy a few years older than Mike, stockily built with broad shoulders and long dreadlocks, walks into the kitchen dropping a tawny, leather messenger bag at the counter before opening the fridge.

"Hey, Jakes," Johnny says through another whole piece of pizza.

The boy ignores his greeting, looking intently in the fridge before whipping around to glare through his Ray-Ban glasses at Mike.

"Hi," Mike mutters under the sting of the scrutiny of Jake's glare.

"Yeah, hi," Jakes responds brusquely, brow furrowed deeply. "What does that soymilk say?"

Mike grabs the carton quickly, eyes searching it carefully until he finds two scrawled characters that might as well be cuneiforms. "Uh..." He looks up to see Jakes wearing a deep frown, arms crossed. "OJ?"

The frown deepens impossibly. "The guy who killed that white lady?"

"Uh?" Mike looks to Johnny, who is swallowing his pizza in a python-like fashion, for help.

"You know, OJ Simpson," he suggests.

Mike wilts under Jakes' harsh glare and Johnny's expectant look. "Um?"

"Wait," Johnny says, a grin spreading across his face as he reaches for another piece of pizza. "You really don't know who OJ Simpson is?"

"No." This interaction is as confusing as the random Spanish interludes.

Johnny laughs, without derision or malice. "Man, I'm gonna introduce you to my friend Wikipedia."

"Yeah," Jakes cuts in. "That's great, Johnny." He returns his focus to Mike. "You allergic to dairy?"

"Uh, no?" he answers hesitantly.

"Then leave the soy products," Jakes plucks the carton out of Mike's hands, "to the people who are."

Jakes leaves after placing the soy milk in the fridge and grabbing the messenger bag. On his way up the stairs, he calls, "If I see him with my soy butter, your ass is mine, Johnny!"

Mike looks expectantly at Johnny, who has the good grace to look away in mock shame.

"Yo, I thought OJ Simpson had left some soy milk in the fridge," he says through the crust of his third slice of pizza.

"Mmhmm," Mike says, amused despite himself. "So what's up with all the soy?"

Johnny swallows heavily before answering. "Oh, he's allergic to lotsa crap."

"Like what?"

Johnny examines the plate of cold pizza, ostensibly searching for the perfect piece. "Dairy, nuts, and beef. That's why they placed him here in the first place." He finally selects a piece of veggie pizza, heavy on olives but without spinach. "His other houses hadn't been... considerate of his allergies, but they figured placing him with a dietician would be a safe bet."

The pause Johnny had used to describe Jakes' treatment gives Mike chills, and he wonders what it means when a foster family is "inconsiderate" of health conditions.

A moment of silence, excluding the sound of Johnny half-choking on the slice of pizza, passes before the front door opens again.

"Yo, Chuckie!" Johnny yells. "That you?"

Mike hears a "Yeah!" in response a few moments before a dark-haired girl in too-big sweatpants and a tank top enters the kitchen. Like the others, she heads straight for the fridge but pauses when she sees Mike.

"Is this the new guy?" She grins.

"Yup," Johnny says, walking over to the fridge. He motions between the two. "Mike, meet Charlie. Charlie, meet Mike."

Mike waves. "Hi."

He expects Charlie to ignore him in favor of food or retreat to her room, away from this strange new kid that steals others' food, but she marches over to him confidently.

Charlie smiles widely, eyes crinkling like Paige's when she'd grinned, and holds out a hand, which Mike shakes lightly. "I would hug you," she explains, plopping down in the chair beside him, "but I still stink from dance."

Mike nods, glad she didn't, as his reaction would not have left a good first impression.

"So, what do you like to do, Mike?" Charlie asks. She's no longer smiling completely, but her warm, brown eyes still hold an tenderness that makes Mike feel slightly more at ease.

"Uh..." Mike is at a loss of words, despite this renewed sense of comfort.

Johnny rejoins them seconds later, a bottle of apple juice in hand. "Mike here likes to read," he says, hopping up to sit on one of the counters.

Charlie glares at him halfheartedly. "Did I ask you? Now, Mike, what do you like to do?"

"Read, mostly," he says, shrugging lightly.

"Me, too." She smiles again. "I dance, too, but I love books. So if you ever need some reading material, I'm the one you wanna ask. Not Johnny, who may not know what a book is."

"Hey! I have all of the books we read last year," he protests indignantly before adding, "I just didn't read any of them."

"You see?" Charlie laughs. "It's me and Dad with the book shelves you wanna look at." She turns back to Johnny. "Speaking of Dad, he still asleep?"

"As far as I know," Johnny answers.

"So Mike hasn't had the pleasure of meeting Papa Bear yet?"

Mike tenses at the sound of footsteps, echoing ominously from upstairs.

"He might get to soon," Johnny says, sliding off of the counter.

Neither Johnny nor Charlie seems bothered or anxious by Paul being awake, which makes his assessment of the Briggs's not being abusive or crazy seem accurate. This should calm Mike, still his slightly trembling hands, slow down his breathing, give him some sort of sense that it will all be okay, or halt the horrible sweating of his palms, but it doesn't. For some reason, he is still terrified of meeting someone who he has no reason to fear. So far.

Charlie breaks him out of his racing thoughts. "I'm gonna go wash the stink of ballet off of me," she announces. "Make sure Dad doesn't freak him out," she whispers to Johnny, so quiet Mike almost can't hear her. He just pretends not to notice her request or the answering nod from Johnny.

Mike hears a voice say "Hey, Chuck." as she ascends the stairs, tensing even more as he assesses the best routes out of the kitchen, all while attempting to control his breathing.

As Paul Briggs enters the room, Mike decides to just take whatever is directed at him without attempting to escape. Briggs, as it turns out, wants many of the same things as the other occupants of Graceland and heads straight for the fridge.

"Late night, Briggs?" Johnny asks, still relaxed and utterly oblivious to Mike's barely controlled panic.

"Yeah," Paul replies, pulling out Jakes' half-gallon of soy milk. "But the guy running the reverse didn't plan it right and screwed the whole thing up."

"That sucks." Johnny nods.

Mike slides out his chair quietly, hoping to go upstairs without anyone noticing. Maybe he can meet Paul when Paige is around; she'd probably protect him. Or maybe after Paul's had something to eat and isn't tired. Maybe when Paul's not near a whole world of potentially painful kitchen tools and appliances. Maybe when Mike's not already freaking out. Maybe just never. Both Paul and Johnny have ceased to acknowledge his presence. No one would notice if Mike didn't interact with the others at all ever. He can just slip in and out of Donnie's room and the kitchen and bathroom until Mike goes back to living in his proper home with Pop and never, ever, ever interact with Briggs.

Mike is about to enact his foolproof plan when Johnny calls attention to him. "Hey, Briggs," he calls. "This is Mike, the new kid."

Then Paul looks directly at Mike, and his breath catches in his throat because, oh gosh, he's bigger than Mike thought he was, and there's the knife tray right there, and Mike can't do anything about any of this. But Paul Briggs and Charlie have the same eyes, and somehow this settles him enough to make eye contact briefly and breathe a soft "Hi."

Paul squints at him, and Mike can feel him assessing and surveying. When Mike glances back, Paul is looking directly at the bandage on his forearm. After a few more seconds, which feel like a decade each, Paul says, "Hi, Mike. I'm Paul. Johnny been showing you around?"

Mike nods sharply. "Yes, sir," he answers, his voice shaking slightly.

"Paige had to go to work, so I gave him the basics," Johnny explains, "but he hasn't heard the rules yet."

Ah, the rules. Here's where Mike is sure he hear about what will earn him a slap to the face or a kick to the ribs or a few days without food or a few more without being allowed to speak.

"Thanks, Johnny." Paul turns back to Mike. "Uh, we're pretty relaxed around here. We'll put your name on the chore wheel, and I think you have dishes this week, but, if that arm's bothering you, I think Charlie or Johnny will help you out." Briggs rubs his lightly bearded chin thoughtfully. "Don't swear in front of Paige. I don't care but, she gets pretty up in arms about that stuff."

"Damn straight," Johnny mutters.

"What else? Uh, tell us where you're going when you leave. We've got a phone on its way for you, so that'll be easier soon."

"You don't need to do that," Mike protests softly. In his experience, when less money is spent on him, people are generally happier with him.

"Don't worry about it." Paul waves his hand, dismissing Mike's objections. "It makes our lives easier when we can communicate." He continues after a moment's pause. "Uh, just don't do anything stupid. You seem like a smart kid, so that shouldn't be a problem."

"It won't be," Mike agrees darkly. He couldn't count the amount of times he'd been punished because he was being stupid.

There is a moment of awkward silence before Mike excuses himself, under the guise of wanting to read his summer book, and Briggs goes back to fixing his breakfast.

Back in the moderate safety of Donnie's room, Mike sits down on the floor, leaning against the bed, and grips his new book tightly in his moist hands. He lets out a shaky breath, glad to have a few moments of solitude. When he lived with Pop, school was the only time he'd had to interact with this many people in a day, and none of them cared what he liked to do in his spare time or that he knew from whom to borrow books. He was just Quiet Mike at school, reading all the time and showing up with the occasional visible bruise or cut. Quiet Mike is easy to be because you can't say the wrong thing or tell someone something that could make Pop look bad when no one talks to you and you never have to answer. But some at Graceland, Charlie, Paige, and Johnny, specifically, do not seem content to let Mike exist without them knowing more about him. But that won't last. Because the best thing being Quiet Mike does is put a buffer between others and Real Mike, keeping them from seeing just how wretched and undeserving he actually is. Once they realize this, they'll stop asking questions and trying to start conversations.

A/N- Contrary to popular belief, I am alive. Sorry I took frickin' forever to update! I experienced horrifying writer's block, which coincided with a hellish amount of assignments from school. You can thank a lovely anon for tracking me down on tumblr (where I am knackstiel), complimenting me, and giving me the ooompha to push through my writer's block.

So here I am. Back at it. I hope to update again, as the idea for my next chapter is quite lovely.

As usual, be gentle, but point out my flaws and comment on my mistakes.

Thank you all for reading!