All Baby wants for his sweet sixteen is a signature and a meeting.
Doc scrawls what could be Joe’s handwriting across the bottom of the form, puts the school district’s hold music on speakerphone. Watches his little dropout drift wizard nod impassively to the beat. Doc doesn’t ask if he’s having second thoughts. Baby made his choice.
Joe can’t give him his freedom, but Doc doesn’t have that kind of paternal obligation on his shoulders. And he understands this desire, maybe better than anyone. Baby doesn’t have to say it for Doc to know how the loss of his music for eight hours every day must set his teeth on edge, how classmates must treat the introverted foster kid with the scars. The classroom just isn’t Baby’s world, and Doc is tired of planning heists around algebra 2 midterms.
Based on the report cards Doc has seen he’s no great loss to the district. Baby is a smart boy but he’s also dreamy, apt to go unfocused without his music and a set of firm directives to step through. Doc knows he’s been struggling in even remedial classes, overworked young teachers unable or unwilling to accommodate Baby’s particular need for order and attention.
Doc hasn’t helped keep him at his desk - the work will always come first and the backpack stuffed with textbooks added nothing to his street cred before Doc banned it from the safe house.
And better attendance records wouldn’t have made up the difference. “Miles” failed out all on his own. It’s only fair Doc offer Baby an early entry to the real world in exchange, open a new door in place of the old. It's only right they add this to the list of poisoned gifts Baby won't ever be able to buy back.
Baby gets all the education he needs behind the wheel, anyway.
After school, Baby sheds the name Miles almost completely - a burned alias from a job gone bad. He’s just Baby now to everyone except Joe, and Joe doesn’t really call him by a name much anyway. So really he's just Baby now.
Miles was a fuckup who couldn't make it through high school. Baby - well, he’s a goddamn prodigy.
The first time Doc overhears him use the name “Baby” off a job he’s startled, then almost laughs. That's a reinvention with a lot of implication to it - his blue ribbon greyhound clipping on its own leash. Rapunzel’s tower door locked from the inside.
“Baby” is another heist Doc has masterminded, a map sketched in chalk that Baby takes in like gospel and executes with his usual quiet precision, never considering what he's handing over like so many duffels of cash at the drop. He just likes the sound of the name in his favorite songs. He just likes the driving, the praise, the knowing where he stands.
Doc had always thought it might be temporary, a joke handle to trade in for something flashier once his little speed demon stopped being so little - but Baby grows into it even as he unfolds to a height that has him towering over most crew, shapes himself to fit its dimensions and the sound of those syllables on Doc's lips. Baby becomes it and he does so willingly, hardly noticing what else he's starving out in the process. It's nothing important - nothing Doc needs.
By the time he understands the concept of boundaries it's too late to have them, not with Doc.
Baby doesn’t ask for anything on his seventeenth; he’s started to resent that Doc makes a point of remembering his birthday at all. It’s Joe’s declining health and obnoxiously persistent moral influence, the way he’s been trying to compartmentalize, clings to what illusion of anonymity Doc generally humors. He resists now where the rare pointed attention used to thrill him.
He holds onto the hope that there’s a real divide between his life of crime and ordinary off-days flirting with record shop girls and puttering around with electronics at home. That he can be Baby, who dances through the supermarket cereal aisle one day and Baby, greased lightning in a boosted car the next. Side A, side B.
So it’s no surprise the way tension snaps into Baby's shoulders when he catches sight of the ribbon-wrapped box in the trunk. His annual reminder of how much of his life Doc has a grip on, how Baby might have two distinct sides to him, sure, but a record is still a single object to its collector.
There's a sick little thrill to that kind of power play. Of course it’s good business to be the one in control but it’s also just gratifying to Doc's worst impulses - to twist the knife, press his palm to Baby’s back and rub his shoulders impossibly more tense as he says “Go on, birthday boy, it’s for you. Open it.”
The box is small enough that he can see Baby wondering if it's jewellery of some kind, reddening faintly. It’s easier than that - a classic pair of wayfarers, sunglasses that don’t generally come free off a car’s center console. He's left the price tag in the box so Baby can see what he's worth, what Doc can afford to spend on a whim and a message.
To his credit Baby barely hesitates before slipping them on, “Thank you” drawled in a way that’s downright respectful. He’s disciplined about following the expected scripts.
“You like them.” It’s a statement, not a question - maybe even a command, if Doc weren’t so certain that he knows Baby’s tastes. That he'd set Baby's tastes. The glasses could be pink and he'd make sure Baby liked them, but they don't need to be pink.
Baby pauses and then nods, maybe waiting to time movement to the beat of his music. Maybe just sulking. “I like them.”
“Best to keep those doe eyes hidden when you can. Somebody might assume you're as wholesome as you look,” Doc says, serious or sarcastic or a little of both, “I wouldn’t want anyone but me getting ideas about taking advantage of Baby's innocence.”
It's less that Baby is innocent than that his nature is almost purely instinctual. He fakes it as well as he has to socially but Doc sees him moving through the world on muscle memory, no plans more than a few steps ahead.
So dancing is like breathing for Baby - unconscious and natural, as necessary as air. “Before” model from a ritalin ad, Baby beats out rhythms only he can hear on the tabletop, rolls his shoulders to backing vocals during briefings. It's part of his aura, his character on the job - twitchy but fast.
It’s surprising to most that the dancing came first, then the driving. Locks picked for the lure of abandoned ipods and then ignitions hotwired with instructions off a geocities web ring just to prove he wasn’t scared of the motor hum, wasn’t really any kind of post-traumatic . Movements timed with the track in his ears and flowing into each other like water until the running current could pull him along easy to the road. Learning to play a transmission like any other instrument.
Driving is just another dance. It’s terrifying. It’s exhilarating.
His mother loved to drive fast, singing with the windows down. He’s proud to take after mom, when he thinks of it - but those memories are a risky trail to follow unless the music is right. Baby doesn’t sing, doesn't have a voice like hers, but he doesn’t need to. He has his earbuds.
There’s something captivating about the way Baby will give over to the soundtrack when he doesn’t think anyone has reason to be watching - flinging himself into the beats of a song only he can hear, spinning and snapping through a pre-heist tire pressure check or backwards with air guitar into an elevator he assumes will be empty behind him. Pure, thoughtless instinct.
Doc doesn't mind the private whimsy. He likes it, in fact, the sight of all that energy bubbling to the surface. He understands that it’s potential, full charge on a battery Baby will lock down and funnel into the drive when Doc needs him to.
It's a kind of grace Baby strives to maintain on the job, a deliberate remove from his less-than-savory surroundings. Pious serenity begging to be tested - it’s pragmatic but sometimes it’s petty sadism, too, the way Doc will sometimes seed a crew with personalities he knows won’t stand for Baby’s particular brand of aloof. Conflict spurs growth, after all, and the gossip builds reputation, feeds into the sort of underworld prestige Doc is determined Baby will have whether he thinks he wants it or not.
And Doc is always there to play the hero, to intervene when Baby gets flustered or particularly withdrawn. Reminding Baby of his debt, of Doc's knowing protection, is its own reward. Baby’s reluctant gratitude, irrepressible smirk just barely pulling at the corner of his mouth, is its own reward. It’s the kind of scene that would merit a phone number and the promise of a different kind of gratitude if the warehouse were a bar and Baby a little less inhibited, but that’s not a thought Doc lingers on.
Baby is old enough and pretty enough for those thoughts to drift more than fleetingly through Doc’s mind. Baby is old enough, even if just old enough. Baby is old enough and his already, but there are many kinds of possession.
“Careful,” he tells him, because naivete is a vice Baby won't be allowed. “There are plenty of model citizens out there who’d consider the number 18 and a mouth like that an invitation.” Gives in to the urge to illustrate that point, brush Baby’s cheek with the backs of his fingers - just to prove he can, that Baby will allow even physical boundaries to be pressed. Blurred lines are their birthday tradition.
He almost laughs when Baby doesn’t react as expected to the touch - doesn't draw back, doesn’t simply submit. No, Baby actually leans in , actually turns his face until Doc can feel the brush of his lips against his knuckles when he speaks. “Would that make you and me square? If you considered it an invitation?”
Doc does laugh, then, delighted. Baby rarely surprises him anymore, and this is just...shockingly mercenary, really filthy. And yet a little kitsch, too. Something baby boy saw on TV in his down time and bizarrely decided was closer to north on his moral compass than throwing a punch or accepting responsibility for a handgun.
Or something his mom did once or twice, more likely. Landlord led through the living room when daddy was AWOL again and the rent was due, Miles plugged into his headphones to drown out the sound from the next room. Something else his parents fought about.
“Oh, Baby.” Doc turns his palm flat against Baby's jaw in the here and now, fingers curled over a pulse that hammers hard like a bass line. Baby swallows but doesn’t flinch. Doc feels a swell of something in his chest at that cool resolve - pride, mainly. Maybe desire. Probably desire. He gives it another beat before he steps back. The balls on that kid.
“No.” He could tell Baby how much he still owes in dollars or in years, relative to the low, low price of the prettiest boy for rent on the corner. He could remind Baby how much more valuable he is on the streets than between the sheets, leaning into the lyrical rhyme of it for Baby's entertainment and recall.
He could just tell Baby that if he ever actually decided to fuck him, Baby wouldn’t dare charge him to do it. Why pay twice for something you already own?
He doesn’t say any of that. His car keys are cold in his hand after Baby’s skin. “No. Watch your burner, I’ll be in touch after the fence finishes her part.”
Baby watches him reverse out, inscrutable behind his glasses.
After that, Baby meets his eyes steadily when he catches Doc looking. A dare, maybe, or just pure fuck-you spite, his old ability to stew on a slight without appearing to. Aggressively passive, innocently calculating, transparently obscure - Baby has always been an interesting set of contradictions. Maybe he's just curious.
Baby is a puzzle Doc can solve, but sometimes it takes a while.
Baby's silences have always been opaque, laden with subtext intended and not. When he speaks it's often in quotations, questions answered with questions or with lyrics recited like a script. His silences, however, are fully original.
One thing is hilariously clear: Baby thinks he’s found a new lever to pull, some form of advantage he might one day exploit. That's fine, Doc can use that. It'll take Baby a while to realize it’s less a lever than one more link in his chain.
That old truism about boiling a frog slowly does prove out. Baby drives, but in his life he’s always been a passenger to someone else's agenda, which suits Doc perfectly. It gives him the freedom to teach, to plot a slow immersion into the realities of his world that keeps Baby willingly in the seat, keeps him comfortable and taking on more and more of what Doc needs.
The first time he orders Baby to dump a car with a body in the trunk Baby has no idea until their debrief by phone. Doc makes deliberately-blasé reference to their recently-deceased informant and hears Baby’s breath catch at the realization, the choked way he bites off his reply and Doc knows he’s pushed him hard but not too hard this time. His Baby will cope, and then his Baby will adapt.
Baby is a puzzle but one whose pieces Doc knows intimately, and he’s secure bordering on smug in the satisfaction that brings.
Baby is holding his breath on the other end of the line. Doc lets him hang up and knows he’s rushed to the toilet basin to throw up, will brush off Joe’s concern and fall asleep at dawn listening to something screaming loud, something to obliterate conscious thought. Whatever he needs. Doc will be patient with him for a bit, shine those rays of warm approval Baby will never admit to craving.
The next time, and the times after that will be easier for him.
Baby still thinks of this as temporary, an arrangement that will end once he’s repaid his debt. Their script is rote at this point - call and response Only a few more years until I’m done / Only a few more years until we’re square .
Doc isn’t angry that Baby insists on losing the meaning of that subtle correction. He isn't offended. It’s pity he feels for that level of self-deception.
This isn’t a fairytale. Doc isn’t Rumplestiltskin, obliged to disappear once the deal is fulfilled. Baby is no princess, no pure-hearted peasant. If he wants to be simple like one - well, that’s his prerogative for now.
Baby won’t ever escape his tower prison, and it’s really all for the best - he’s not suited for life out of bounds anymore.
For all his careful isolation from the rest of Doc’s men, Baby shares their addictive personality type. The same track on the same album on the same ipod playing in his earbuds for a few weeks until he’s memorized every riff, the same itchy comedown twitchiness to his movements after a particularly wild chase, a particularly close escape. His foster-kid-typical awe for the wholesome in life, puppydog adoration of the normal people who happen to step through his bubble, the more ordinary the better. Normal parents, normal well-adjusted kids. Normal girls with the power to make him feel more like a normal boy, lovesick and warm.
He meets Beth on a coffee pickup, delighted surprise on her face when the barista calls out the order for Uh, Baby? He has to go but she’ll be there with her study group all day and that’s enough of an invitation to have him hooked, daydreaming possibilities. Enough of an invitation to double back after Doc slips a banded stack of 50s into his pocket, shyly approach the table piled high with textbooks and looseleaf sheets streaked in pink highlighter.
Doc learns all of this later as he inevitably learns everything that matters, but she’s typical: Baby's age (fake ID rounding her nicely up to 21 when required), maintains a mediocre 2.9 GPA at Emory, buys molly for special occasions from one of his campus connections. Doc views it with good humor, because he can afford to. For Baby she’s just a diversion. Satisfyingly empty, a whole tube of Pringles binged in one sitting. It’s easy to imagine how it will play out:
Baby standing at the fringes of a house party, headphones in, watching frat boys play beer pong he's observing doctors performing surgery.
Baby propped on one elbow among crumpled dorm room sheets, examining family photos taped to the wall without seeming to in case Beth notices and asks him about his own parents, his own siblings and school friends.
Baby sprawled on the grass of the quad, quizzing his girlfriend from her midterm study guides, blushing as he stumbles over words like “bourgeois” and pronounces the “th” in Goethe.
It’s a fantasy, a long-distance relationship between Baby’s reality and a world where he doesn’t know the customs, can’t even speak the language. Due to expire the moment college girl tires of the novelty, the warm self-satisfied glow of being so open-minded and unlike her mother that she’d fuck a high-school dropout who doesn’t even know the name of the vice president. Baby’s the only one who’ll get hurt.
Doc feeds slack into Baby’s leash without comment, gives him the space and isn’t surprised when he eventually slinks back. It's almost dramatic in its non-drama, how matter-of-factly the switch flips sometime around the lead-in to Emory winter break - Baby no longer freezing up when Doc clasps his shoulder, losing the rush to escape after every job. Baby meeting his eyes properly again when he looks, considering. Baby’s clothes losing the mixed scent of cheap floral hand lotion and menthol cigarettes. Baby becoming more unselfconsciously himself again, gradually as the melancholy wears off.
Doc isn’t relieved, because he was never worried in the first place - Baby knows where he fits, even if he hasn’t quite figured out where he doesn’t.
He's so damn fast. Sometimes Doc wonders how much of that power is the attraction. Maybe whoever owned Seabiscuit wanted to fuck him, too.
Baby’s record is perfect, a criminal resume of jobs completed meticulously under time. No safe house compromised, no crew lost, full take in hand. Maybe that makes Doc complacent.
When it happens, it’s Baby’s own damn fault - cheap rent-a-cop playing hero and Baby deciding to be Christian about it, saving one worthless life in a wild swerve and catching a bullet as a thank you note.
The funny thing, the hilarious thing, the real fucking joke of it all is that Baby still manages to get the car back to base before Doc expects them, before the police have really even mobilized over their radios to give chase. The door to the warehouse clangs open ahead of schedule and it’s so unexpected to see Baby walking at the front of any group Doc knows something is wrong even before he takes in the blood, the way Baby is leaning on his point man for support.
“What the fuck did you do?” He’s not sure who he’s directing that at but he’s in motion already, hands on Baby (still solid, still very much there despite the glazed look in his eyes) to guide him to sit atop the briefing table he clears with a swipe. Papers flutter to the floor, toy cars roll in all directions, and Baby sways in place where he’s put, woozy.
Doc’s not listening for a reply to his question, barking orders ( get the first aid kit - bring something sharp - get liquor - if that car is as bloody as he is get it to the bottom of the fucking river ) and shoving the sleeves of Baby’s sweatshirt down his arms. The rest of the crew knows enough to obey and then scatter, burner phones primed to buzz as soon as the fence does her alchemy and turns jewels to clean currency.
Baby is hyperventilated or lost in an older memory of blood and broken windshields or both, turned inward to the music in his earbuds and twitching more than nodding to the beat. He recoils automatically when Doc begins cutting through his shirt sleeve and Doc’s patience snaps, one more loose thread.
It turns out Baby’s earbuds aren’t a part of him after all, pop out easily when Doc snags them and pulls, fall lightly to the floor when Doc opens his palm and slaps Baby across the face hard because he just needs his proper attention, he just needs fucking stillness for a moment and - he just needs Baby not to dare be this fragile . He just needs Baby to be unshakable again. Is that so much to ask?
He gets something a little more controlled, a little more Baby out of his patient by the time his hand stops stinging, wide eyes and blown pupils on Doc’s face and then on the bottle of Jim Beam shoved toward his mouth. “Nobody’s checking ID and this is the only anaesthetic we’ve got around here, Baby, drink.”
Baby takes his medicine, coughs but keeps down one swallow, two. Four more because Doc shoves the bottle up by its base and holds it tilted until he sputters and gags. Doc is so angry and he can feel Baby start to tune into this fact, start to blink properly out of the numbing thud of his pulse and whatever traumatic highlights reel has been playing through his brain. Good. Priorities.
Baby doesn’t flinch when Doc upends the remaining whiskey over his shoulder - that’s no surprise, not now that he’s present in the moment. It’s never pain that wrecks Baby, it’s the bloody imagery of violence, the moral implications of harm. Joe pacing unevenly in the living room, leaning into his cane and his worries. Some kid waking up in the hospital to ringing ears and a social worker with tragic news to deliver. Gore and sentimental bullshit. Pain is easy.
“Just a graze,” he says, still feeling more fury than relief as he prods the surrounding skin and Baby takes his cue, stays silent and tense enough to shatter if Doc hit him again. Or fired a gun across his other shoulder. “Just need a tight bandage and the brains to know when a man has a death wish you just fucking let it happen.”
“I’m sorry,” Baby doesn’t often have reason to apologize as far as Doc is concerned, but he does it with the practiced self-abasement of all his favorite baby-come-back love songs, alcohol blurring his speech around the edges. “I’m sorry, I was so stupid, Doc, I won’t - I won’t do it again.” He never talks this much, and that’s probably more of a symbol than his fists in Doc’s jacket, his teeth clicking painfully against Doc’s on the push inward.
A kiss is just another line in their continuing and unspoken negotiation - How much of me do you own? When are you going to collect on the rest? “Don’t give up on me, please, look - I came back, I got them all back like you said - “
Baby, craving reassurance, tweaking on adrenaline and whiskey buzz. Baby, smarter than he lets on, pressing the levers he instinctively believes might save his life yet, keep him on the road.
Baby, too stupid to realize Doc’s anger is itself safety - proof that Doc has weaknesses too, that he might have the power to stop Baby’s heart on a whim but he can’t keep it beating on sheer force of will. Proof that Doc has seen the distance between what he can and can’t control and is terrified of it.
Proof that Doc belongs to Baby, too.
Doc poses Baby back on the table, big doll whose arms and legs stay where they’re put until summoned into motion again. Pulls his wrecked t-shirt the rest of the way off on the good side. Washes. Dries. Bandages.
Doesn’t lick his way back between Baby’s lips. Doesn’t cut his jeans off with the scissors, too impatient to fumble with zippers and Baby’s too-long, too-relaxed legs. Doesn’t pin his wrists to the table as he fucks him, ravenous for the sounds every rough thrust pulls from Baby’s throat, for the knowledge he’ll be feeling the aftermath of Doc as much as the bullet in the morning. Doesn’t. Does not.
He leaves Baby alone on the cot to sober up and figure out how to wear his pain home inconspicuously to Joe, shopping list tucked under his good arm with a note to keep changing out the bandages, to keep them tight. Don’t be weak like that again left unwritten.
He’s got Baby’s blood all over him. Even Baby’s mouth, impossibly, had tasted like iron.