Crutchie gripped onto his crutch as tightly as he could, trying, in vain, to stop the tears he knew were streaming down his cheeks. He held his breath, trying to quiet his sobs only causing them to come out forced and louder. His whole body shook as he tried to reign back his emotions. He tried to get ahold of himself in the middle of the large crowd of people. But he couldn't.
Strong arms encircled him. He'd known they were coming. They'd been trying to push off this moment till the very last second. And Crutchie wished beyond everything that that second could last forever.
"Don't cry, kid..." Jack's voice was not convincing. It was clear he didn't want to leave either. Crutchie held onto him, letting his metal crutch fall to the floor as he let both of his arms encircle his big brother. "I'll be back before ya know it." It was a lie. A big lie that Jack had been telling all the littles when he'd said goodbye to them. But Crutchie didn't speak. He just held on tighter.
When Jack decided he had to pull away, Crutchie found himself having trouble letting go. He was grasping onto the back of his brother's shirt like nothing he'd ever gripped before. But Jack grabbed both of his arms and gently pulled away from him, smiling as he looked at his baby brother. "It's all gonna be okay, Crutch."
"Come back ta us, Jack..." It was a simple request. Jack had been away before. He'd been away for months at a time for training and whatnot, but this was different. Back then, Crutchie had known exactly when Jack would be coming home. This time... this time they didn't know if that day would even come.
With one last kiss to the forehead, Jack picked up his crutch and said one last goodbye to him. "I love you, Crutchie. I'll see ya soon."
Crutchie watched as Jack walked to the person next to him. A shorter, yet buff boy. He was the same age as Jack. Nineteen. And he had to clear the emotion from his throat before he began to speak. "Do us proud, Jackie-boy," he said with a smile, extending out his hand, ready to give Jack the handshake they'd been using since they were little. But Jack shook his head.
The surprise on Spot's face was priceless as Jack threw his arms around the other boy. But Crutchie could see the tears building up in his eyes. He could see the way Spot hid his face in Jack's shoulder and how the Brooklyn boy was tightening his fists into Jack's shirt. "Don't do nothin' stupid, ya hear?"
Jack laughed as he pulled away. He wiped away his tears and nodded. "I'll do my best, Spottie..." Crutchie couldn't help but laugh as the king of Brooklyn wiped away his tears. "Look out fer my boys, will ya?" The Brooklyn boy nodded as Jack walked away.
Crutchie felt himself starting to shake even more. He shook as Jack walked up to meet the final person he could say goodbye to. The only other person who had rode with them to the airport.
Race was a wreck. Crutchie had never seen him cry so much. The gimp was sure the older boy was even worse than him. He knew why. Over the years, Race and Jack formed a bond that Crutchie never had with either of them. Sure, he'd known Jack since forever. Jack was his best friend and they did everything together, but that was different than being the two oldest boys in a house full of foster kids.
Race and Jack weren't only as close as brothers could be, they picked up each other's slack when the other couldn't. Crutchie would never forget the nights when Jack would pass out, either from a sickness or pure exhaustion, and Race would take care of him and put the littles to bed and pack their lunches for the next day and make sure they all ate dinner and even do Jack's chores for the day. They were partners, taking care of so many foster kids many people would wonder if their lives were even possible. Jack worked shifts at the diner before and after school and he would still find time for them and when he couldn't, Race was there. Jack made them breakfast and lunch and dinner and when he couldn't, Race was there.
Now Crutchie watched them. That day was bringing a seamless partnership to a screeching halt and leaving the weight of the world on the shoulders of a single seventeen-year-old. Not to mention, Crutchie knew Race would miss Jack like hell.
"Don't leave, Jack." It was his last, pointless plea. Race's face was red from trying to hold back his tears and his cries. And all Jack could do was pull the boy into a tight embrace. They held onto each other like their lives depended on it.
"Shshshshsh Racer..." Crutchie watched Race bury his head in the crook of Jack's neck, desperate for him to stay. But he couldn't. They all knew he couldn't.
The rest of the conversation would remain somewhat of a mystery to the crippled boy. He could hear soft murmurs and desperate pleas, but what broke his heart the most was Race's cry when Jack pulled away. "I love you, Racetrack." And with one last kiss to the forehead, Jack glanced at them all with tears shining in his eyes.
"I'll be back before you know it."
Then he was walking away. Spot had to grab Race and hold him back when the blue eyed boy tried to run after him. And, after Jack turned back to them and gave them one last wave goodbye before he was out of sight, Spot did the unexpected. He pulled both boys in and held them tight. They didn't fight against him. They needed it.
"Cmon boys, I's told Kloppman I'd have ya home soon."
For once in his life, Crutchie wished the car ride back had been silent. He didn't think he could handle the sound of Race's gasps of air as he tried to breathe normally. He couldn't handle the way his arms were wrapped around himself in an attempt to calm down. Crutchie couldn't handle his own quiet sobs. He couldn't handle the way Spot would open his mouth to speak, and then opt against it.
Race was sitting in the passenger seat, his knees pulled up to his chest and his forehead resting against the cool window. He hugged himself tight. Crutchie watched while his choked, broken sobs turned into quiet sniffles. He watched Spot clear his throat and wipe away the unshed tears in his eyes. It was a long ride.
Eventually, Spot's car pulled up to a familiar house. Nobody moved for a while. Spot sighed and glanced into the mirror, locking eyes with Crutchie who wiped at his eyes and then looked up to the house that didn't look the same anymore. The house that may never look the same again.
"If ya need anythin'... call me, yeah?"
Crutchie glanced at Race. He clearly did not want to get out of the car. He was staring blankly out the window and they weren't even sure he heard Spot's small request. So Spot turned around a little and nodded to Crutchie, letting the boy know it was okay to go.
Reluctantly, the gimp boy stumbled out of the car. He didn't go inside. He stood, at the door, watching the other two boys who sat in the car.
He couldn't see Spot. But Race was as clear as day to him. His older brother was taking a strong interest in his hands as Spot was, no doubt, talking to him. Race didn't speak. His lips were sealed together and only his head would give any indication that he was listening. A short nod or a shake of the head was every response. It made Crutchie worried. Race had never been so quiet in his life.
A few moments later, the older boy was slowly forcing himself out of the car and he was walking to Crutchie as Spot reluctantly pulled away.
"Race..." Crutchie didn't know what he could say. They'd both just watched their role model, their hero walk away not knowing if or when he would ever be back.
Race didn't say anything. Just put an arm around Crutchie's shoulders and lead them both to the door.
Inside was sickeningly quiet. There were a few murmurs coming from the main room, but never had that house been so swallowed up into sadness and anxiousness.
Crutchie could feel Race's breath hitch from the hold he was in. He heard the boy sniffle. And then they were suddenly in a room full of heartbroken boys and one girl.
Katherine saw them and stood. She'd volunteered to stay behind with the boys so Race could see Jack off. It had been hard, but she did it. She ran up and brought both of them into her arms, softly and quietly crying when she saw their heartbroken faces. Crutchie cried along with her. And Race did too. Little did Crutchie know, that would be the last time he'd see the seventeen year old cry for a long time. Way too long.
As the days moved on, the boys had trouble adjusting to the sudden emptiness of the house. Jack may not have been a foster kid anymore, but he was their brother. He was there, day and night. He picked them up when they got home and helped them with their homework and supported them.
Crutchie found himself struggling to hold it together. Jack wasn't there in the mornings, making them breakfast like the boy had gotten so used to him doing. Jack wasn't there to wake him up from nightmares and tell him everything was okay. Jack wasn't there to calm the littles down during thunder storms or to keep Albert and Elbert from getting into fights or to help them with there homework. Jack wasn't there to stop Race from spiraling.
It was slow at first.
Race had taken a job at the diner. It was where Jack used to work. He'd wake up before the sun rose and he'd sneak out, leaving the boys notes and possibly some breakfast if he could. Sometimes, Crutchie might see him kissing one of the littles head's before he left. Romeo, maybe Sniper. And then he'd be gone before anyone else would realize he was up. It was something Jack used to do.
The day would go on and Crutchie would find Race at school. He'd be running from one place to the next, trying to finish his homework and talk to his brothers all at the same time. The bell would ring and Crutchie would see Race tense. Jack used to wrap an arm around his shoulders while they walked to class. The memory only brought back more pain. Jack wasn't there.
After school, Race would rush to the diner. He worked as many shifts as he could. He would work as a waiter, greeting people with a plastic smile and empty eyes. Crutchie knew he'd rather be sitting. He'd rather be sitting at their table with a hand full of cards and a smirk on his face. He rather Jack be the one rushing around and yelling at them to knock it off when they got too loud even though he'd be laughing too. He'd rather feel Jack come up behind him and slap the back of his head. He'd rather have Jack.
When the sun had set and the littles were yawning on the couch, having done their homework and eaten dinner, Race would tiredly walk through the door. Crutchie could see the way he'd walk into the kitchen, his bag slung over his shoulder. His back may be to them, but it was all in his stance. Race was miserable. But when he'd turn around, a smile would be on his face when he dropped his backpack down. He'd run up to the kids and ask them how their day was. He'd ask them if anyone gave them any trouble. It was a routine he'd learned. One he couldn't slip out of.
One that reminded him of Jack.
That's what Crutchie realized the most. Race was trying to, not only be the big brother and love and care for the boys... but he was trying to be Jack. It was as if his daily schedule and all too happy, care-free behavior would make the house whole again. It didn't. Deep down, Crutchie knew Race could see that too.
A few weeks after the departure, Romeo had a nightmare. Not one that he'd easily wake up from, like the boys had most nights. It was one that Crutchie's eyes snapped open to. The kid was screaming. And he wasn't just screaming anything.
Crutchie felt tears welling up in his eyes. He turned onto his side, watching Race rush up to the small nine-year-old. He was the youngest boy in the house. Crutchie watched Race scoop up the thrashing kid in his arms. Romeo still screamed, a name slipping from his lips that made all the slowly waking boys tear up. That nightmare woke them up at one AM, exactly one month after their brother had gotten on a plane and flown over seas into a battle that they didn't know much about. Into a battle that could cost him his life. And they all knew it.
"Rome... Jack ain't here..." Romeo was still crying. He still called out for Jack to save him from whatever monster had had him in its grip. And Crutchie watched Race hold the boy in his arms like a baby. Race's attempts to rock him back and forth were futile. The boy screamed and cried and soon the entire room was wide awake.
"Shshshshsh..." Race ran hands through the boy's hair. He cradled the kid's head to his chest. He kissed him and whispered to him but Romeo wasn't having the soothing gestures.
Crutchie sighed and stood up, grabbing his crutch from the floor next to his bed. Race watched him leave, not awake enough to understand why he was out of bed. Crutchie didn't stop to speak, only opened the door and made his way down the hall into another one of the bedrooms in the house. Pushing the door open, he limped his way in, still hearing the cries of a little boy who missed his brother.
The boy with the crutch was careful not to wake any one else up as he made his way to a very familiar and welcoming bed. Across the room he could spot the one that he used to sleep on as well. That is, until that day that Jack had waved goodbye to them. It had been hard for Crutchie to go back in there. It had been hard to see that bed where he used to find refuge and comfort. A bed that used to hold a boy that would sing him to sleep after a nightmare. But Crutchie shook off the feeling as he grabbed a blanket off of the bed that no one dared touch anymore.
As Crutchie walked back through the door, hearing the quieter and softer sobs of a terrified little boy, he caught Race looking at him, shocked he'd come back. Crutchie guessed the older boy thought he'd just left to find a quieter place to sleep. Race must've been too tired to connect the action to the boy.
Crutchie sat on the edge of Romeo's bed and wrapped the thin blanket around the boy. Romeo was only half awake. His big brown eyes were only still trying to pull him back into reality. Race was able to collect the blanket up and completely roll the kid up in it as he still lay in his arms. To everyone's relief, the sobs started to turn into broken, shuddering sniffles. But Race only looked up at Crutchie with a heartbroken look in his eyes, though he refused to let any tears fall. And then, as Romeo drifted back off to sleep, clinging to the older boy's shirt, Race let his blue orbs fall shut and his whole body slumped against the wall.
Crutchie understood. He missed Jack too.
Their deployed brother called them. It took a long time for the first call to come through. Jack had told them it would. He hadn't known when he'd be able to do it. The boys were ecstatic. They all grabbed at the phone until Race sighed and just put it on speaker in the middle of the coffee table in the family room. They sat around it on the couch and in chairs and on the floor. They could hear Jack's voice. It was full of uncertainty and longing. Jack wanted to come back just as much as they wanted him there with them.
Crutchie watched as Race sat in Jack's old chair. It was the one Jack used to occupy every time he had the chance to sit down. He was distracted from the conversation with his brother that he missed dearly because his other big brother was falling asleep in the corner. Falling asleep because the boys weren't watching him. They weren't catching him and his overall exhausted state. A state he'd been in for over a month.
Then the question slipped out of JoJo's mouth. "When are ya comin' home, Jack?"
The silence hurt. It was thick and uncomfortable. Crutchie couldn't stand it and he caught a glimpse of Race's eyes opening, just slightly, hoping and praying there was an answer to that question.
Jack sighed. "I don't know, fellas..." It was April. The boys were anxious to see the boy who had practically raised them. It had been over a month.
Crutchie tried to keep the disappointment from his eyes. He tried to push away his feelings and then froze. He glanced over at Race. The older boy was biting his cheek. He was locking his emotions inside him. He didn't want them to see what was happening in his head. But Crutchie could anyways. Fear, doubt and... anger. The last one scared Crutchie. Why would his big brother be angry? With Jack? It quickly dawned on him that that couldn't be it. It just couldn't be. And then it hit him.
Race was angry with himself. He didn't think he was enough and overall he felt weak. He felt weak because of how he longed for Jack's arms to surround him in a safe embrace. He longed for the older boy to just be there to protect him and take care of him. But he wasn't. And Race didn't like it. Neither did Crutchie.
Katherine came eventually, taking the phone and speaking with Jack after a long, tearful goodbye to the boys. The girl talked on the phone for a good ten minutes before she came back into the room sniffling. The love of her life was over seas. He was out there, not knowing if he'd ever come back. It was terrifying. And Katherine just wanted him back too.
The days went on. Race was only getting worse. Crutchie could tell that he lived on less and less sleep each day. He was taking on too many shifts for his own good. He was being woken up in the middle of the night because of nightmare after nightmare. They weren't always one of the other boys either. Crutchie was awoken more than once by Race screaming himself awake. He assumed that the older boy saw what he saw. Jack. Jack hearing a loud firework and then pushing someone out of the way. Jack covered in blood, tears in his eyes as he realized he would never make it home. And Crutchie could hardly stand it anymore.
Three months after Jack left was the day that Race didn't wake up. It was June. The boys only had a few days of school left of the year. And final tests weren't till the next week. So Crutchie didn't wake him.
Crutchie got the boys up. He told them to be quiet. And they were. They weren't stupid. They could hear Race snoring, clearly in a blissful, dreamless sleep as they descended the stairs and headed to school. Crutchie called his older brother out of work. He called him out sick. He left a note for the old man that owned the house to please call Race out of school. And then he walked back up the stairs before he left. He left a gentle kiss on his brother's curls before he was off to school with the rest of the boys.
He went through his day, trying to remind himself that Race needed sleep. He needed a break. He needed a weight lifted from his shoulders. And he hoped this would do it. But when they all got home, they found a panicked, angry, Racetrack.
"What the hell was ya thinkin'?!" Crutchie rolled his eyes, his normal innocence and calmness gone as Race had dragged him upstairs, away from all the other boys whom they both knew were trying to listen.
"You're exhausted, Race." Crutchie wasn't dancing around the subject. Quite frankly, he was tired too and trying to subtly break the news to his foster brother wasn't an option anymore. "You're gonna work yourself ta death if ya ain't careful!"
Race glared at him as he paced the room. "I can't afford ta give up shifts like that!" He was gesturing, wildly. "And I can't just miss class! Finals are comin'! Ya can't just call me in sick like that!"
Crutchie sighed. "You ain't Jack, Race." That seemed to catch a furious Racetrack off-guard. He froze and locked eyes with Crutchie, stuttering and scoffing and at a complete loss for words. "You ain't got no right goin' around, pretendin' ta be."
Crutchie watched Race blink back tears. He watched the boy glare daggers at him and he wondered if the older kid who used to be known for fights and gambles was about to pounce. To the crippled boy's relief, Race didn't. "I know you have a job and ya want to support us, but ya can't keep doin' this Race!" Crutchie shook his head as his own tears started to fall. "Jack is gone! He ain't here and it's okay ta miss him!"
"Crutch-" Race shook his head, but Crutchie wasn't done yet.
"You are tryin' ta forget that he's gone, ain't ya? By workin' and goin' ta school and tuckin' in the littles and then gettin' up before the sun!" Race sighed and sat down on the bed across from the boy. Crutchie assumed he was just too tired to continue standing. And Race's entire face had fallen into one of a depressed teenager. But he didn't let one tear fall. "It's okay ta cry, Race... I miss him too..."
Crutchie thought maybe he'd finally gotten through to him. He'd at least come close. Closer than anyone else had, that's for sure. But Race still shook his head. "He told me ta be strong fer him, Crutchie..." His voice broke. But Race didn't cry. "He told me ta... ta take care a' you guys and ta be strong fer you's..."
After that, they sat in silence, knowing full well there were boys outside the door, listening to their conversation. Crutchie didn't know what he could say. He just sat and watched Race coach himself in breathing.
Three months without seeing those calming green eyes was taking a toll on them all. Three months without that voice that brought them out of nightmares and soothed them after close calls with bullies and cops. Three months. Crutchie didn't know how much longer he could do this.
But Race still didn't cry.
Summer gave the boys hope. The days were longer. The nights were shorter. They thought maybe if they stood and watched the door long enough, a knock would come and they'd open the door to jump into a certain big brother's arms. Race always came downstairs before his shift and scooped them up, momentarily distracting them from their hopes of willing their soldier brother to just miraculously walk through the door.
The calls were few and far between, but Jack made sure to make contact with them at least once a month, weather it be through email or an actual phone call. Of course they all preferred to hear his voice. Katherine would always rush over when Race shot her a text saying Jack was calling them. Hell, so did Spot. The Brooklyn boy missed Jack beyond belief, though he never would admit it.
The rest of the time, they muddled through. They went outside and enjoyed the heat while splashing each other with bottles of water or spraying each other with the hose, unexpectedly. They went for walks in the evenings and hung out at Jacobi's, surprising Race by showing up. But Crutchie never missed the small smile they got when he saw them. Race was happy they were there. He loved them.
Katherine stopped by a lot. One time, it had just happened to be Romeo's birthday. She had given him a cake and brought a present for him. The boy was ecstatic. And when he opened up that gift he broke down into grateful tears.
It was a sweatshirt. One that matched the one that Crutchie had and the one that Race wore to bed every night. It went with the t-shirt Katherine was wearing that very day. It was gray and warm and on the front, in big, bolded, black letters it said "PROUD ARMY BROTHER." There was no truer statement in that house. Though Katherine's said "ARMY GIRLFRIEND," he was still excited to be matching with her. The boy was so happy. He ran up the stairs and put the thing on. Crutchie smiled and made sure to take a picture of all of them in their shirts and send it to their hero, overseas.
Spot even came that day. It had been a good day. Things were starting to feel okay again.
It was towards the end of that summer when something terrifying happened.
Albert, JoJo and Specs sprinted through the door, bruises evident on their faces and arms. Race was just about to leave for work. Crutchie sat in the kitchen, watching the scene closely. When he saw the panic on their faces, he froze and they shook their heads, prompting him to not ask questions. So he didn't. Race shushed the boys for a moments, squinting his eyes at the two sixteen-year-olds and the one fifteen-year-old, before a brutal knock on the door startled everyone.
Crutchie didn't want to know who was waiting on the other side. But he soon found out anyways.
"Don't answer the door." Albert was pleading with Race from his spot against the door. The three boys were breathing hard. Crutchie wrapped arms around himself, glancing down at the sweatshirt he loved to wear for a moments before looking up and catching the pure fear in JoJo's eyes. He watched Race shoo them from the door and look through the hole to see what they were so scared of. That's when he heard Race gasp and turn from the door with a petrified look in his eyes.
"What the hell did you do?" Crutchie felt a pang of fear rush through him at the harsh, fearful whisper that shot out of Race's mouth. Then another knock at the door was heard. Well, more of a pounding of the door.
"It wasn't us!"
"They's was pickin' on JoJo!"
"What do we do, Race?"
Crutchie felt himself begin to shake as Race began to breathe harder. And his older brother flinched at the next knock of the door.
"Get out of here." Albert tried to argue. JoJo tried to step forward, and Specs tried to get Race to move, but Race shook his head. "Get out of here." And they did. And Crutchie was very scared all of the sudden.
Race opened the door once the boys were out of sight, putting on his poker face. One Crutchie had seen far too often over the past five months or so. And a man no one wanted to see stood, panting outside the door with a crazed, furious look in his eyes. "The hell do ya want, Spida'?"
Crutchie flinched when that name was said. The boys in the living room were frozen to the spot. They were terrified. Even the littles, who had never met the man in their lives.
"Higgins..." the man growled out, making Race visibly tense. "Where are the rats?"
Race scoffed and shrugged. "What are ya talkin' about?" Crutchie could practically feel the fear rolling around in his friend. He hated it. Race's stay at the Refuge had been long and torturous. And the only thing that had gotten him through it was Jack's constant, nightly visits.
"I could arrest you for hiding kids running from the law!" Everyone held their breath. "Don't forget all the respect you learned, Higgins. Else I'll be forced to teach you again!"
The boy with the crutch saw his friend flinch at the raised voice. And the mention of being arrested... taken back to that place... it made Crutchie feel sick.
What would happen then? No Jack? No Race? What the hell would they do?
"Who were they and what did they do?" The words rolled off the Italian boy's tongue automatically. Crutchie watched as the old man paused and stuttered for a bit, trying to recall the names of the boys who had done nothing but protect one another from day one. "Ya can't tell me those, then ya got no business bein' here!"
It would have been nothing to anyone else, but Race's hands were shoved in his pockets. He did that to keep them from shaking. Crutchie knew it. He knew it because Jack had done the same thing.
It took a few minutes for the man to give up and leave. The tension visibly lessened as the door was slammed in the man's face and Race turned, letting his body collapse against the door as he slid down, unable to continue standing on shaky legs. His breaths came out short and scared but the tears were blinked back. All Crutchie could think to do was rush up to the older boy, falling down on top of him and holding him tightly. Sniper and Romeo joined in after that and soon the whole house held onto each other so tightly, scared to death of watching another one of their brothers be taken from them.
The school year beginning was hard and irritating for the boys. They still didn't know when Jack would be back and the first day marked a fresh cycle of Race's never ending routine of being gone all day and then barely making it home in time to see the kids before bed.
Crutchie could see him wearing thin. The run in with Snyder had shaken him and pushed him further into a state of panic and anxiety. His feelings were locked even tighter and it scared Crutchie.
Halloween came and went. The little boys all dressed up and the older kids took them out to trick or treat. It took hours for Crutchie to convince Race to take the day off, but eventually the older boy caved. All it took was Crutchie grabbing Romeo and showing Race his little army costume that Katherine had bought him. That made Race heart melt. So he went out with them.
Spot met up with them with some of his kids. "Brooklyn ain't too safe ta have littles roamin' around. Thought I'd bring 'em here instead."
Crutchie had smiled as Spot winked at him. He knew Race needed someone else at that point. It may not be Jack, but Spot was a brother figure to Race too. And Race needed a night to be a stupid teenager again. At least for one night.
The night was fun. People awed and cooed whenever Romeo smiled brightly and told them the story of his costume. "My big brother wears one like this too! I wanna be just like him!"
Crutchie always laughed and thanked the people for their kindness and candy as Romeo dashed back down to Race, other Manhattan and Brooklyn kids right behind him.
Spot had taken Race aside that night. Only for a minute. Crutchie had assumed it was just to ask if he was truly okay. All the crippled boy knew was that Race seemed a little bit reassured after that conversation. Like he had the tiniest bit of hope that Jack would be home soon. And Crutchie felt a warmth spread through his chest that night.
Thanksgiving came next. Katherine had come over. She'd bought them so much food, Crutchie hadn't been sure how she'd even come by it. Medda came by too. She brought them turkey and gave them all kisses, telling them she was so grateful for each and every one of them. Spot had stopped by in the morning, wishing them a happy Thanksgiving before he was headed back to his Brooklyn brothers. Before he'd left, he'd given Crutchie a hug, much to the younger boy's surprise.
"Thanks fer takin' care a' him as best ya could. Kelly would be proud."
The smile and blush that appeared on the boy's face was undeniable. And Crutchie was happy for the rest of the day, his natural optimism and charm taking over once again.
Jack called that day. The boys were so excited. Their older brother had listed off every one of their names and told them what he loved about them and why he was thankful for them. And then, after about an hour or so of catching up with his boys, he requested to speak with Katherine.
They were on the phone for a good half hour before Katherine tearfully let out an "I love you too..." and handed the phone to Race.
"Jack?" Crutchie watched his brother lean up against the wall. He watched Race's face beginning to fall more and more as he spoke to their hero. "How long?" Crutchie wished he could hear what Jack was saying. But then, Race turned. He hid his face from his foster brothers and continued to speak. "They's was really hopin' ta have ya back by Christmas, Jackie..." That's when Crutchie's heart dropped. Ten months... it will have been ten months by December. And still... nothing. "I know... Jack... I-I miss you..."
It took him too long to admit. But it finally happened that day.
The conversation kept going. All the boys were listening closely to Race's side of the conversation, trying to piece together information. And then Race's broken voice let out a quiet, "I love you too, Jack..." before the call was ended. That's when Race turned around with a heartbroken look in his bright blue eyes. And Crutchie knew what he was going to say.
"Alright, fellas," Crutchie put on his natural, care-free smile, hiding the fact that anything was wrong. "Time fer bed." He got a series of groans in response, but Race didn't move. He leaned up against the wall for support and stared blankly at the ground.
Crutchie watched Romeo and Sniper run up to Race, bringing him somewhat out of his daze and dragging him up the stairs to help put them to bed.
That night had been the night Crutchie had been waiting for. After all, Race could only keep up his tough guy routine for so long.
The boys were all sleeping, save for them. They were making their way around through the bedrooms to account for each one of their brothers. That's when it happened. Race had been checking on the kids in Jack's old room. It wasn't anything new. But Crutchie passed by the door just in time to see Race walking by Jack's bed. The seventeen-year-old collapsed on the ground right next to it.
Crutchie made his way over to his big brother. The boy was an absolute wreck. Tears were streaming down his checks and his blue eyes were turning red as he gasped and sniffled for air. His forehead was resting against Jack's old mattress and he hugged himself, clearly praying that someone else would wrap him up in a tight embrace. Clearly hoping Jack would appear out of thin air. But he didn't.
Crutchie didn't think he'd be so relieved to watch Race hit rockbottom. The spiral had lasted forever. All he'd wanted was for Racetrack Higgins to just let him in. Just like it used to be. Race had doubts and fears and he was cocky about it, sure, but he never hid from Crutchie. Never. That is, until Jack left.
The boy with the crutch dropped down beside he sobbing brother. Race didn't even move. He didn't even know if Race heard him. But he carefully placed a hand on Race's back. He didn't expect for the older boy to completely turn and throw his arms around him. But what else could he do but hold onto him and cry with him? They missed the boy who had practically raised them. They missed Jack Kelly.
The month of December came faster than Crutchie anticipated. It was Christmas time in the Manhattan group home and they made it very well known. Kloppman got them a tree while they were out at school, just like every year. They spent a Saturday decorating, just like every year, save for the tree that would be lightly decorated in a few days. Some of the kids were just having fun running around the house, screaming their favorite carols at the top of their lungs. And they played outside when it snowed.
It was Jack's favorite time of the year. Jack and Race both. Crutchie could recall so many memories of Jack and Race telling him stories and making up traditions for their makeshift family. Jack and Race loved the month of December more than anything else. But Crutchie could see Race just trying to get through, despite the fact that his jokes were slowly coming back and his cocky smirk had been replaced on his face. Race hadn't had a Christmas without Jack in almost ten years. It was going to be hard. But they were gonna get through it. Together. And their Christmas was going to be spectacular.
But Crutchie didn't know what would happen on the morning of their last day of the semester before break. He hadn't expected it to happen. It was just like any other day.
Race had gotten up and gotten dressed. He didn't bother changing out of the sweatshirt that he held dearly, feeling closer to a boy overseas whenever he wore it. He grabbed his uniform and gave Crutchie a quick kiss on the temple before he was rushing down the stairs.
That was Crutchie's cue to get up. He began to get dressed when a feeling stirred up inside him. Butterflies twirled around in his stomach as he got ready for the day and after he was dressed, grabbing a coat, he sat for a moment, wondering what he was so nervous about. He shrugged it off. Whatever it was, it couldn't have been that important.
He made his way downstairs to find the ever present note that Race left them, telling them good morning. Telling them he loved them. Telling them to please make sure to eat breakfast before school. Crutchie smiled as he read it.
It wasn't long before he heard the front door open up. The green eyed boy squinted his eyes at that. Race never forgot anything. He was always out and ready to go. Crutchie stayed silent as the door was quietly pushed close and he turned his eyes to the counter, waiting for Race to rush in, say good morning, grab something and be running out the door. When he didn't, Crutchie became a bit concerned. "Race?"
What he didn't expect was for two arms to wrap around him from behind in a tight, welcoming embrace. That was when Crutchie gasped.
"Merry Christmas, kid."
Crutchie bit back a joyful scream. That voice... it was right in his ear. It was right there. No static or echo in the background. It was there. But the kid didn't dare turn around. He didn't want to wake up. He didn't want it to be some cruel illusion of his deepest wish. But when those arms loosened and suddenly the chair he was in was turned to face someone, the sob couldn't be helped.
Crutchie launched himself into those open arms. He clung to the older boy in front of him and let him run hands through his arm, dropping loving, happy kisses onto his blond locks of hair. Crutchie could hear the tearful chuckles and the hard breathing, as if Jack had been hoping and praying for that moment just as much as he had been.
"Hey, pal..." Jack's voice cracked. Crutchie held on tighter, feeling himself be lifted out of the chair. His feet weren't even touch the floor anymore. He was up in his big brother's arms, his knees pulled up to Jack's hips as the older boy held him so tight.
"R-Race said..." Crutchie's voice shook along with his whole body. "Race said ya wouldn't be home in time fer-"
"Shshshshsh Crutch... I'm right here..." Crutchie held onto him tight.
They stood there for several minutes, reassuring each other that they were with each other. "How did ya get here?"
Jack chuckled and set Crutchie back on his feet, helping him grab his crutch. "Medda picked me up at the airport. I called her the minute I found out I's was comin' home."
Crutchie laughed and shoved Jack a little. "That was low, Kelly. Why didn't ya tell us?"
Jack's eyes lit up. "I wanted ta surprise ya boys." He wiped the tears away from his eyes and Crutchie did the same. Then Jack took his baby brother's face in both of his hands. "It's so good to see you, kid."
Crutchie smiled and leaned into the touch. It was like that for a while. Crutchie's hand held onto Jack's wrist, not wanting to let go for anything. But eventually, Jack must've looked at the digital clock above the microwave. "What are those lazy bums still doin' in bed?"
"You should go wake 'em up, Jackie... Al's been sleepin' in too late fer the last week."
Jack laughed and turned. Crutchie didn't even think before he was up on his big brother's back, holding onto his crutch but letting Jack carry him up the stairs for the first time in a little under a year.
Crutchie let Jack put him down in the doorway of the room he'd been sleeping in for the past nine or ten months. He leaned against the door frame, watching Jack silently creep to the youngest boy's bed with a tearful smile on his face.
Jack carefully wrapped Romeo up tightly in the warm blanket that was thrown over him. The boy looked over at Crutchie when he realized it was his and the younger boy could only let out a small laugh and shrug at him, still wiping at his falling tears. Then Romeo was scooped up in Jack's arm, looking like a small toddler wrapped up the large blanket.
Crutchie laughed when Romeo moaned and snuggled into Jack, clearly not awake enough to know why he felt so comfortable and safe. But Jack started stroking his cheek lovingly. The older boy placed several kisses on his hair and stroked his think brown locks from his eyes. "It's mornin', kid... don't wanna be late fer school!" Jack urged, quietly. Romeo let out a pitiful, sarcastic sob, something he'd no doubt picked up from Race over the years, and curled in more as Jack rocked him back and forth in the blanket. "Don't gimme that, pal! Ya gotta get up if ya want breakfast!" Romeo didn't respond. He only rubbed his cold nose against the blanket and his eyes sleepily slid open before sliding closed again. "Oh I see how it is!" And then Jack was tickling. His fingers danced along the ten-year-olds tummy, successfully getting a few tired squeals out of the kid.
The world was perfect in that moment. "Stop it, Jack!" The boy giggled and thrashed around, unable to free himself from the blanket that wrapped around him, keeping him warm and nightmare free. But as the laughs seemed to die down a bit, Crutchie could hear Romeo gasp at what he'd just said.
"Wake up and see, kid." Jack's voice was filled to the brim with laughter and excitement. And the boy did as he was told. Crutchie could see those big brown eyes open, even from across the room. They were wide and filled with tears.
"Jack!" The little boy let Jack hold him close, still unable to untangle himself from the mess of Jack's blanket. Gentle kisses were being dropped on his head and Crutchie laughed as some of the other boys groaned. Jack only chuckled too, laughing as Romeo tried to free himself from the blanket and as all the boys tried to turn over for some extra sleep. Crutchie watched as Romeo sobbed and let Jack hold him tight. "Jack..."
"Shhh!" Albert was not liking the noise. Everyone could tell. "Jack ain't here, Romeo! Go back ta sleep!"
Crutchie laughed when Jack's immediate reaction was to grab Romeo's pillow and chuck it at the other boy. "Wake up ya lazy bum! What'd I tell ya 'bout sleepin' in?!" Jack's voice was filled to the brim with laughter and joy.
"Shut up, Jack!" Boys had been groaning. Most had been turning over in annoyance. But once that name slipped out of Albert's mouth, time itself seemed to stop.
"Get your asses outta bed!" Crutchie laughed as the entire room was immediately out of bed, on the feet, staring in shock at the boy holding a happily sobbing Romeo. "What the hell are ya waitin' for?" Jack had tears in his eyes and a smile on his face. "Get ova' here. All of ya."
The reunion was tearful and joyous and absolutely perfect. Romeo was squealing as Jack tickled him and kissed him and he still hugged each and every boy that cried out his name in disbelief. He kissed each and every one of them on their foreheads and cheeks, overwhelmingly happy to see them and they all clung to him, fearing that if they didn't, he may disappear.
Once they had settled and stopped asking questions about how and why Jack was there, something slipped out of Elmer's mouth. "Race needed ya back..."
Crutchie could see it in his big brother's eyes. His heart broke at the words. But as a knock sounded from down the stairs, it didn't matter for the moment because a beautiful, mischievous smile spread across Jack's features.
Crutchie waited for the sure sound of Jack sneaking out the back door before he pulled the front door open, revealing a girl with a sad smile on her face. To her it was just another day. But, boy was that about to change. "Hey Kathy," Crutchie greeted cheerfully and somehow her smile lightened.
"We're awfully happy today. What's going on, boys?"
Crutchie saw her glance behind him at all of his brothers. She was confused but seemed to be happy that they were happy. And then another voice spoke up. "Just the usual, Ace."
Katherine will deny her scream till the day she died. But gosh, Crutchie will never forget that sound. It was one full of shock, laughter, relief and happiness. She couldn't turn around. She could only sink to the ground with a hand at her chest as she held back tears. But as soon as Jack laughed and was at her side, she was in his arms.
"Hi beautiful." She was up in his arms much like Crutchie had been, her feet not even bothering to touch the ground. She let him pick her up and pressed kisses to her lips and her cheeks as she cried.
"Jack Kelly, I told you never to sneak up on me like that!"
Jack laughed. Crutchie felt his heart flutter to life. Everything was okay. Everything would be fine. Jack was here. Jack would pull them back to their feet. Jack would pull Race back to his feet.
"I love you."
Katherine couldn't help but smile through her joyful tear. "I love you too, you stupid boy."
Next came Spot. Crutchie had begged and pleaded with Jack to let him go with him over to Brooklyn for the day. His tests were done, unlike many of his brothers' classes. He was set for the vacation. And Jack could never say no to him anyways. So, after taking the boys to school, Jack and Crutchie had driven over to Spot's old foster home where they knew the older boy would be, helping out his foster brothers on their last day of school before break.
As they Brooklyn boys were loading into Spot's old truck, Crutchie watched Jack casually slip into the passenger seat. He leaned against the back of Jack's old car and watched the scene unfold. The Brooklyn kids were smiling as their big brother was completely oblivious to who had just gotten into the car. Spot stared straight ahead to the road, tapping his thumb against the wheel, waiting to drive off when Jack dramatically sighed and rolled his eyes to Spot.
"What the hell's takin' so long?"
Crutchie was laughing when Spot's facial expression didn't change a single bit. Instead, the older boy froze for a moment, his hand ceasing it's previous movement before he simply got out of the car and hastily walked around the front of his truck, throwing open the passenger side door. He grabbed Jack by the front of his shirt and threw him out of the car, into the grass before tackling him in a hug.
"What the hell took ya so long, ya damn bastard?!"
The boy with the crutch could hear the laughter from where he stood, an old camera in his hand recording the whole thing.
The last surprise wasn't till the end of the school day. It was the one Crutchie had looked forward to the most. The one all the boys longed for as they'd seen the disaster that was Race over those last long, long months. Race had grown independent, sure, but he needed his big brother. He wasn't ready to be on his own yet.
Crutchie followed Jack through the school. Jack walked with purpose, a huge, goofy grin on his face as he did. He glanced down at his little brother every few seconds and Crutchie could see the anxious tears in his eyes. He'd missed Race. And Lord knows how Race had missed him too.
Jack carefully knocked on the wooden door of the classroom their brother was in. Through the small window in the thing, Crutchie could see a familiar face walking to him and his foster brother after ceasing to read a book at his desk. Wiesel. And the man couldn't help but smile as he saw them. Contrary to popular belief, the man had a heart. And it was moments like this when it was shown.
Wiesel stepped out into the hall. "Mr. Kelly..." he smiled and stuck out his hand for the boy to shake. Jack did with a smile plastered on his face. "Back just in time for the holidays, I see. Hoping to surprise someone?"
Jack laughed. "I ain't missed a Christmas with Race in ten years. I ain't startin' now," Jack vowed. "After all, it is his favorite time of year." Wiesel nodded and took a glance back into the room. "Can I see him?" Crutchie was wondering the same. They both wanted to see Race.
Wiesel smiled. "He's asleep at his desk right now. He ain't finished his exam yet. Ya wanna do the honors?"
Crutchie laughed when Jack straightened up and cleared his throat, ready to march through the door. "Always, Weasel."
Sure enough, there he was. His arms were folded over his papers and head was turned to the side. Crutchie chuckled at his brother's resting form. And he tried to contain his laughter even more when Jack casually strolled over to Race as if he was a teacher, checking up on his students. The entire class was snickering at that point. Jack cleared his throat, but all that got him was a groan and Race's head turning as he tried to get more comfortable to sleep more. Then Jack smiled to himself and his eyes glistened in excitement.
Crutchie watched as Jack's hand came down fast on Race's desk. The smack echoed throughout the room and Race sat straight up, his eyes wide but his mind clearly in a bit of a daze as he looked around wildly, no doubt hearing the laughter and giggles around him, wondering what was happening. Then Jack laughed. "Anthony 'Racetrack' Higgins, what have I told you about stayin' up late? Look what happens. I bet ya didn't even study fer this test, did ya? What have I told ya 'bout keepin' up your grades?"
Jack's lecture kept on going, but Crutchie could tell Race was hardly listening. His eyes were glazed over and the sounds of laughter were bouncing around the room. But Crutchie saw Race trying to grasp onto reality. He was trying to figure out if it was real or not.
Race's piercing blue eyes were trained on the older boy in front of him. Jack was smiling. Words spilled out of his mouth, making the room chuckle, but Crutchie saw the way Race was tearing up.
"Jack...?" The voice was so small. It was full of so much hope. So much hope that it was real. Race couldn't say anything else as his legs became wobbly and unstable. Jack barely caught him. And when Jack caught Race, Crutchie could hear the choked sobs that escaped his brother.
Jack picked Race up. He was holding the smaller boy so tightly to him. Race's feet may have been on the ground, but they weren't what was supporting him. Jack was. And the seventeen-year-old's arms were holding Jack in a death grip, like if he let go he would surely fall to his death. Crutchie watched with tearful eyes.
Racer. The boys hadn't heard it in ages. No one called Race that but Jack. Suddenly it all felt real. Suddenly Crutchie saw Race's legs give out completely as he sobbed in Jack's arms. "Ya gotta finish the test, kid..." Jack laughed as he lowered himself and a shaking Racetrack onto the ground.
Crutchie saw Jack glance over at him, possibly looking for help. All Crutchie could do was offer a sad, tearful smile as Race clung to their older brother. And when Jack looked back down, he must've noticed that Race was wearing the sweatshirt that proclaimed how highly he respected him. The sweatshirt showed how much he loved his big brother. Jack's face completely lit up.
"D-don't care 'b-bout the damn t-test..." It was all Race could sob out.
Wiesel told Jack to take the kid home. They were grateful. Race had already gotten through enough of the test. Or, at least, that's what Wiesel had told them. Crutchie suspected that the old man just knew Race wouldn't have finished it anyways.
Jack had to carry Race from the room. The boy wasn't strong enough to do it himself. He let Race wrap his legs around his waist and cling to him in a tight hug as he stole him from the room. Crutchie grabbed the boy's bag, following them to the car.
Race was wiping away tears on the way home. He sat in the passenger seat. Crutchie was behind him, poking fun at him about crying in front of so many people.
"Give it up, 'tough guy.' You's a big softy."
It was the first time that Crutchie had heard a genuine laugh from Race in almost a year. It was the first time he'd seen that smile in far too long. And Crutchie watched as Jack ruffled his hair from the driver's seat and as Race shoved his arm away, still wiping at his red eyes.
That night was the night they decorated the tree. Crutchie knew why Race had put it off. Decorating the tree was Jack's favorite thing to do. He loved to lift the little boys up as they competed for the highest ornament on the tree and he loved to watch them all ooh and ah as the lights were shut off and the tree was lit up. He loved to let the youngest kid place the star on top of the tree, finishing off the perfect tree. And Race wouldn't have been able to do it without Jack.
It all happened just like it did every year. The boys turned on classic Christmas songs and sang them at the top of their lungs. And Crutchie couldn't have been happier to see Race smack them over the head as he grabbed another thing to hang on the tree. It was like magic. Jack was there. And now, Race was too.
Romeo squealed when he was lifted up, off the ground, grabbing everyone's attention. Crutchie turned to see him sitting up on Jack's shoulder. The older boy handed him the plastic star and the kid smiled, wildly. Crutchie saw Race, even in the dark with only the light glow of the tree in the room. He had tears rolling down his face.
Katherine snapped a picture when Romeo placed the star on the tree and the whole room applauded the boy. It was late. Jack shooed some of the smaller boys up to bed with a kiss goodnight and a genuine "I love you," called after them as they left. And immediately when Jack sat down on the couch, Race was strapped to his side. Crutchie didn't waste any time doing the same thing on his other side and Katherine put her hands on her hips, narrowing her eyes at the two boys who held onto her man.
"I knew him first," Race challenged, making Crutchie giggle as they both clung to their brother tighter. Katherine just rolled her eyes and leaned in, stealing a small peck of the lips from her boy. Then she waved goodbye, telling them she'd be back in the morning. They shouted their love and goodbyes as she left and soon the three boys were alone.
Crutchie heard Race sigh. He felt Jack drop a kiss onto his head and then he heard him do the same for Race.
"Don't eva' leave again, Jack..."
Jack held them tighter. Life wouldn't always be that perfect. It wouldn't always be as peaceful as three brothers sitting in front of a dimly lit Christmas tree with the smell of cookies in the kitchen, watching an old movie on their old VHS player. But for now, everything was okay. For now they could pretend life could go on like that forever. For now, they were okay.
They were okay.