The first time it happens is the night the Phantom goes down.
After the rage at Shoupe and the cops drift away, he goes tearfully quiet - sad and numb and silent. Someone says something about ‘dissociating’ and he’s pulled into Heyward’s arms, but then his breathing goes funny.
The sad, silent shock dissipates slowly and a dense, acidic realisation drops heavily into the pit of his stomach.
His gasps wetly and his breathing goes funny.
Heyward must feel it too because the arms around him tighten.
His breathing feels and sounds off, even to his own ears.
Tight in his chest.
A wheezy whine.
A sob bordering on panic.
Somehow, he ends up laying down on a bunch of seats that weren’t there before.
Head pillowed on a lap.
A hand rests on his chest, another presses against his forehead before it moves to push his hair back.
There’s sounds around him - loud and quiet, in and out, unidentifiable.
It’s muffled, like his ears are waterlogged, and he wonders, briefly, if he’s gone down with the Phantom too, lost to a watery grave - one of his own making.
The hand taps at his chest, then rubs gently, and JJ wonders who’s taking the time to be so gentle with him when he doesn’t deserve it. He feels the fingers on his head, combing through his hair again, a thumb rubbing at his exposed skin, and then Heyward’s face appears above him.
He says something, the sound lost to the waves crashing in his ears, and JJ blinks up at him in confusion.
“- with me, JJ?” Heyward’s voice penetrates his muffled hearing.
JJ feels himself nod against Heyward’s leg.
“Okay, that’s good…” Heyward says, offering him the same sad smile he had when he’d first arrived at the tent. The nod of acceptance to touch , to be held , the acknowledgement of how life changing John B gone meant, one look that simply says ‘I know, JJ ’ and ‘It’s okay, not to be okay’. “Just breathe for me, kid. Can you do that?”
JJ blinks and nods and tries.
As his breathing slows and gets better, the feeling of an all-encompassing guilt and sense of loss sinks him like a stone.
- Mr C.
The next time it happens, it’s not even 24 hours later.
He sneaks out of the Heyward’s at ass-o’clock, while everyone is still sleeping and wanders around numbly, until he finally ends up at the Wreck. Obviously the death of Peterkin and the double tragedy of losing two local teens was not a reason for the Carrera’s to close up for the day.
Neither of Kie’s parents were there, so JJ ends up staying, ordering a coffee and two glazed donuts. He recognises the guy on the counter from school, a year older maybe, but JJ doesn’t remember his name - Joshua-Jake-Joey-something? He offers JJ a sympathetic smile with his coffee and a fist bump of condolence.
He chooses two or three booths away from the door and sits tiredly.
The coffee is too strong, leaving a bitter after-taste coating his tongue, only managing a small bite of the donut, before both sit unpleasantly in his roiling stomach.
He’s not sure how much time has passed - too long - when he hears “How long has he been sat there?”.
JJ scoffs because Mr C doesn’t even try to be quiet about it.
“I don’t know,” Joshua-Jake-Joey says with a shrug. “Long enough for his coffee to get cold. An hour maybe?”
“Go home, JJ.” Mr C calls out. “Heyward’s looking for you.”
JJ raises his eyes. Mr C has a frown on his face. JJ doesn’t know if it’s one of concern or disgust. Despite the flare in his chest, the uncomfortable feeling Mr C’s scrutiny is causing - guilt, shame, something else that JJ hasn’t quite fingered out yet? - JJ doesn’t avert his eyes. He’s never backed down from a kook before, he’s not going to start now.
It seems to work. Mr C looks away first and is drawn away to the other end of the counter.
JJ looks down, unsure of what to do, fingers clumsily picking at one of the donuts, leaving a sticky, sugared mess on his fingertips, his attention only drawn away by the sound of a group entering through the door.
They’re loud and obnoxious sounding.
JJ glances over his shoulder and recognises the familiar outfits of the rescue team from the night before. He sighs and turns back around, trying to drown out their voices, but a few penetrate with unwanted words.
“They’re dead, for sure.”
“Yeah, waste of time.”
“Might as well call time on it. Probably won’t even be any bodies to find.”
JJ thought he was doing a pretty good job at blocking them out, even with his knuckles grasping the edge of the table, teeth tightly pinching at his bottom lip, drawing blood, until the last person speaks, and then he’s out of his booth and charging towards them, completely ignoring Mr C’s startled “JJ, no-”
“What was that?” JJ snaps. “Want to repeat that?”
The guy is tall, actually towering over JJ, a smirk on his face that only broadens as JJ tries to square up to him.
“I said ,”JJ repeats, “you want to repeat that,” he steps closer, grabs the guy's shirt and twists. “Say it again.”
“Shiiit,” someone drawls slowly. “He was there last night. He’s one of the friends.”
The douchebag who JJ is currently accosting has the decency to widen his eyes and look at least a little bit ashamed, “Shit, kid. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t say shit like that,” JJ snaps, hand still twisted in the guy’s shirt. He shakes him a little.
“Christ, kid…” he says,” You know it’s unlikely they survived, right?”
JJ releases his hold and shoves the guy away “You’re not giving up.”
Someone from the back of the group pushes forward and JJ has a second of familiarity, before the man reaches for JJ’s arm. He’s older than the others, at least by another ten or fifteen years. “JJ, right?” he’s saying. “I know your dad, Luke. My name’s Hank.”
JJ snatches his arm away.
He seems innocent enough, but JJ knows if this guy was friend’s with his dad, then he can’t be that nice .
“We’re not giving up,” Hank was saying. “Not yet.”
“They’re not dead…” JJ stutters, clumsily pulling away, breath’s quickening.
It wasn’t like before, when it had progressed from anger, to a distant numbness, to the slow building apprehension that had made him feel like he was drowning, no this was fast and furious, and suddenly he’s aware that he’s not breathing right . Not at all.
He manages to stumble backwards, and then drops hard into a seat, a coffee cup careening to the floor, shattering with the impact. His arms seem to crash to the table, cutlery and plates inadvertently shoved with his weight.
“JJ?” Someone says, suddenly appearing in his peripheral, reaching for him, and JJ flinches violently, hypervigilant and thinking of his dad, fast fists and the words ‘you. are. a. useless. piece. of. shit.’ ringing in his ears.
“Okay, okay,” he hears and JJ blinks.
Mr C is standing there, hands out placatingly.
The frown from before is back but only worse.
“You’re okay,” Mr C is saying.
“Okay’” JJ mumbles breathlessly. Even repeats it a few times to make sure. “Okay, okay, okay.” He feels his head jerk up and down, feeling light and shaky, like a puppet with its strings cut.
“You're having a panic attack,” Mr C tells him.
Is that what it was?
And then a slightly louder “Really? What the hell?”
JJ flinches again, hands going to his ears.
“No, JJ, not you,” he hears more softly, so JJ drops his hands, confusion warring with his panic. Mr C turns away and hisses “You think the kid needed to hear all that?”
Mr C joins him in the booth, the table safely between them, “You got to slow your breathing down. You’re hyperventilating.”
Mr C tries to get him to practice his breathing - in through his nose, out through his mouth - and even gently takes JJ’s wrist in his hand, fingers falling over his pulse point, and JJ’s too out of it to pull away. Only it doesn’t work because suddenly he’s light headed and sliding sideways out of the booth, watery bile rising, splashing between his feet.
“Shit, kid…” Mr C is saying, rushing out of the booth and falling to his knees even before JJ reaches the floor.
JJ is only out for a few seconds. It doesn’t even count. Not really.
A hand lightly touches the side of face, before sliding up to his forehead and JJ just blinks sluggishly.
“Bring us a glass of water, will you Jerry,” Mr C asks and JJ just lets Mr C hold him until a cold glass is pushed into his hands.
He’s shaking so much that Mr C has to hold the glass steady.
He’s helped back up into the booth and Mr C stays with him until his hands stop shaking.
JJ doesn’t know how long he stays there, enough time for Jerry to have cleared the table, and for Shoupe to arrive.
He finds him dozing with his head resting on the table, a fresh new, cold and wet glass pressed against his forehead, eyes lazily opening and closing.
“Aww shit, kid…” Shoupe says as though looking at him was causing him actual physical pain. “Let's get you back to the Heywards.”
The third time is a doozy, and ends up with a pitcher of water being thrown over Topper’s friends and JJ being fired.
JJ storms away from that damn kook country club with a rage simmering deep within him.
Full of righteous anger.
The rage settles into a burn in the centre of his chest and he grabs at it.
A small whimper slips out as he curls his fist into a ball.
Somehow he’s on his bike, completely destroying one of those perfect looking kook flowerbeds. He grits his teeth, squeezes the handlebars, and bears down, tearing the flowers up and sending soil flying.
He’s grabbed from behind and torn away from the bike before he can push off and away.
He would have fallen if whoever had held of him let go. Instead they shake him.
“Are you out of your mind?”
“ Shoupe ?” JJ mutters, trying to twist around.
Shoupe shakes him a little bit more.
“Let me go, man…” JJ mutters. He’s fully aware that a bunch of country clubbers are watching, his head and body mixed up with so many feelings he can’t quite describe what was happening to him.
“Don’t ‘man’ me,” Shoupe snaps, releasing JJ with a little shove. JJ stumbles but rights himself to see Shoupe pinching his nose between his eyes. “Do you know how hard I’m trying to keep you out of Wadesboro?”
“I…” JJ starts, glancing over his shoulder. He spots his boss, - no, ex-boss - Topper and Kelce watching. He glares at them and sticks his middle finger up.
“That’s not helping, JJ…” Shoupe sighs.
“They were talking shit about John B,” JJ whirls back, snapping, voice rising. “It’s bull-shit. It’s all bullshit. None of you know what you’re talking about,” he yells out.
He hears a snort of loud, spiteful laughter.
He gathers his hands up into his hair and paces a little.
“I know JJ,” Shoupe quietly says, too quietly. JJ shakes his head, incredulous laughter bursting from his mouth.
“You know?” JJ hisses, stepping up to Shoupe, shoving the older man. Shoupe doesn’t react, appearing unfazed. JJ gesticulates behind him. “Tell them then. If you know, why don’t you goddamn tell them?”
He turns back, eyes stinging, and shoves Shoupe again. Over and over. And the man lets him. By all rights, Shoupe should be hauling his ass in. JJ was assaulting an officer, after all. Hell, there was still a chance that he would haul his ass in.
The burn gets worse and it hurts .
He whimpers again and before he knows it it turns into a broken sob.
Shoupe looks startled and reaches a hesitant hand out.
JJ smacks it away with a snarl and then hides his face in his hands as he feels the tears start to fall.
One sob falls into two, then three and four, until he’s full on sobbing.
“JJ-” He hears Shoupe say, and then he’s being pulled into a hug. JJ tries to resist, tries to push out with his elbows, but Shoupe is surprisingly stubborn and doesn’t let go, so JJ goes still and stiff within the hold. “Shit kid, don’t cry.”
Shoupe pulls away when the sobs die out and JJ’s breathing evens out and rests a hand on JJ’s shoulder.
“What they’re saying is not right,” Shoupe agrees. He lets go of the shoulder and ends up squeezing the back of his neck, pulling him forward slightly. “But this ,” Shoupe shakes his head. “Is not helping you or your friends.”
JJ blinks and nods before stepping away, wiping the back of his hands over his eyes and face.
“Let me take you back to the Heyward’s,” Shoupe tells him.
“No one’s at home,” JJ says, shaking his head.
He doesn’t say it, but what he really means is I don’t want to be alone.
“Okay, how about Heyward’s shop?”
“Yeah… yeah,” JJ says shakily. “The shop will do.”
For once in his life JJ goes compliantly with Shoupe, with a promise that he will bring the bike back later.
The attacks that come after, well they might be just as scary, but they come with a light that JJ hadn’t known was still there.
JJ has that feeling again, the one that sits in his stomach - the one he hasn’t quite figured out - that morning in class.
It slithers up when the first text comes through, something but nothing .
He runs from the class more to do with the feeling than the photo in the message.
He can’t quite decide if this feeling was good or bad.
Trepidation? Anticipation? Excitement? Anger at cruel and false promises?
He trips in his rush to get out, falling over the janitor’s mop and bucket, and Pope and Kiara overtake him.
The burn sparks as they exit the building, and his hand flutters over his chest.
He finds his spot against the wall, steady at his back, and studies his phone in his hands, willing it to buzz again.
When it does and specifically asks about JJ the spark warms in his chest and soothes him.
And JJ knows now, that today, it’s hope .
There’s too much yelling.
JJ just had to help someone escape and evade the cops, for reals this time.
JJ just aided and abetted a wanted felon, although that’s not a new thing, obviously.
JJ just had to help his dad leave , for good this time.
His head’s full of memories, bad ones that sit heavily amongst the good, although it’s the good he latches on to, like the small, brief, intimate hugs he manages to have in between the drug and alcohol fuelled rages.
He’s had to do all that while still helping John B and Pope, but when they get back, a damn ‘gator has taken a chunk out of John B’s leg, and Pope and John B end up in a yelling match with Kiara.
He tries to tell them to stop but when they don’t he ends up shouting at them to ‘shut up’ and they do.
He gives them an angry JJ talk about how they are it for him, that he has no one else , that they need to stick together, Pogue style and it must be really rallying and peppy, because suddenly they are all applauding him.
It leaves him breathless and his heart beating a little too fast in his chest.
Pope surprises them all by wading through the ‘gator infested waters until he reaches JJ and pulls him into a hug, resting their foreheads together.
“I’m sorry,” Pope says quietly between them and then “I love you too.”
- John B
He’s in a container.
He’s on a boat.
He’s fighting someone with a machete.
He’s sitting on the floor, head hitting something hard.
He’s trying to help Kie.
He’s seeing stars.
He’s in the water.
That’s how JJ remembers it. It comes in stops and starts.
He hears a soft muffled voice - it sounds waterlogged again and he wonders if he really did go down with the Phantom after all - “Hold on JJ, John B is coming.”
He comes to suddenly, on a new, more choppy boat, and chokes.
“There you go, cough it up, baby…” John B’s relieved voice is saying. “Okay buddy, there you go.”
And JJ panics because Kiara is panicking and he can’t catch his breath, spitting water from his lungs and choking on bile and air.
“Hey, JJ…” John B says, clicking his fingers in front of his face and JJ snaps his eyes to his friend. John B snatches his hand up and squeezes. “Are you with me?”
JJ nods, but his breathing doesn’t get any better.
He’s disorientated and unfocused, eyes darting around the small boat, taking in everyone’s worried faces. Alive , all alive.
“JJ!” John B snaps. He lays a hand softly against the side of JJ’s face and draws it and his attention back to him. “You got to slow your breathing, okay?”
JJ nods again, small jerky nods, slurring in agreement.
“Just breathe for me, JJ. Can you do that for me?”
Anything, John B, I’d do anything for you.
JJ cries then, because it’s only just hitting him, now that the adrenaline is gone and he’s left an exhausted and soaked mess, that John B is back .
One shuddering breath after another and a desperate tug.
John B and Kiara switch out, and JJ falls into John B’s side, not caring that John B was Sarah’s boyfriend, because JJ had dibs on him first.
“I’m okay,” JJ murmurs, even though he’s crying.
Because he was and will be.