The explosion rocked Howie back on his heels, and he threw his arm up to cover his eyes, almost dropping the control box. Every dog on the East Side started to howl, and every intact window slammed open. Three floors above him, his father was demanding to known what was going on, while old Mrs Rothstein across the screamed something about the war.
Howie shrank back into the shadows before anyone could see him or his box, and tried to work out what had happened. As soon as he'd pressed the trigger, he'd realised he must have got his calculations wrong. Or he'd lifted the wrong cut of dynamite from the construction site by the bridge.
It still more or less worked. Only instead of tipping the contents of a couple trash heaps off the roof and onto the Broome Streeters, it sent the crates, trash and all, in a series of perfect parabolas across the evening sky, shattered all the adjacent glass, and set Mrs Cohen's laundry line ablaze. The air also smelled of sewer and rotten fish, but that mostly wasn't Howie's fault.
It had definitely been the explosives, but even taking that small error into account, surely this would wipe the smug looks off the faces of all the Chrystie Streeters who thought twelve was too young to include in serious skirmishes. As Howie stood outside the blast radius, arms folded, evaluating the falling debris, picturing the next meeting, and how he'd explain what he'd done and how they could all work together to make the next time better.
A shape took form, walking out from the middle of the rain of trash and flaming planks, as cool as Valentino and just as gorgeous: the Italian boy that Howie had set the Broome Streeters on in order to lure them in. He was looking right at Howie, like he knew.
Howie tensed and would have run, except the boy had his thumbs hooked in his pockets and was sauntering like a dandy.
"What streeter?" the boy asked; he was trying to sound casual, but had to raise his voice a little to carry over the approaching sirens.
"This one," Howie answered. "You?" he asked, as if he didn't know.
"Just moved here." Just moved and hadn't made any friends because he was Italian to the street's majority of Jews. "That'll keep them on their side of the Bowery," the boy commented, taking a stand next to Howie. He had dirt in his hair, and didn't seem to have noticed the gash across his cheek, which was dripping blood down his filthy shirt. His eyes glowed as he watched the flames, then he turned on Howard.
Howie didn't have time to flinch before the boy slammed him into the bricks of his own tenement–forearm across his chest, hand gripping his chin–stunned by the sudden violence.
"And next time, ask before you use me as bait, or I'll pound you blue. Got me?"
Unable to nod, barely able to breath, Howie wheezed, "Got you."
The boy dropped Howard, stepped back and held out his hand. "Done deal. Joseph Manfredi, by the way."
Wanting to sound that grown up, Howie said impulsively, "My name is Howard. Howard Stark."
Howard kicked a rock ahead of them as he and Joey made their way to what was, as far as he was concerned, his penultimate day of school.
His mother had a different view: she said she hadn't come all the way to America for her only child to spend his life hustling Chrystie Street and running from cops with "that boy." Her little Howie was too smart for that. Howard figured he was just about smart enough to work out that nothing else was likely to happen to a kid like him. Besides, he liked that boy.
In either case, it would be the end of his daily ventures past Broome Street–with all its old battles–as well as through the still-hot territory of Delancey Street–entered only with at least one compatriot–just to sit in a room and pretend to be interested in math he'd taught himself five years ago. Set loose upon the world or upon high school, Howard and Joey had new roads ahead.
"Two days," Joey said, echoing his thoughts. "Not damn soon enough."
"Yeah." Two days until a summer of sleeping on the roofs, running the half-melted streets with their own band of Chrystie Streeters looking for new battles and spending every minute he could cadge in Joey's uncle's garage. Uncle Matteo, who had said he'd actually pay Howard, Jew or not, so long as he got his working papers at the end of eighth grade.
Howard rubbed at the bedbug bites on the back of his neck, and then kicked his rock again, watching it bounce out of the gutter, off a trash can and onto a shiny pair of boots.
His eyes flicked up, taking in the blue uniform, met Joey's, and they broke to run in the same heartbeat.
They didn't make it past the first corner. Howard ran face first into a wall of blue, which grabbed him by the collar and held him fast while a man in a suit explained to Joey that he was under arrest for his part in the Delancey Street arson.
Howard had known that Joey carried a knife but had never seen him use it on more than an apple. Now Howard flinched back against the constable holding him as the switchblade appeared in Joey's hand, then vanished into the suit's side.
Joey was screaming that that rat Bobby Fallucchi was going to get it next, and that they'd all pay; the suit was screaming that Joey would never see daylight again, and the constable holding Howard was screaming for more cops.
When Howard twisted and tried to rabbit again, the constable was too busy laying into Joey with his nightstick to pay him much mind.
Champagne drunk was a whole different feeling from hopefully-re-distilled-denatured-ethanol drunk: a bubbly, giddy feeling. Or, that could have been the girl on his arm, or the enormous cake that Uncle Matteo had gotten Schultz's to do up with both their names in green icing. If someone didn't stop him soon, Howard was going to start singing like they did in the pictures.
"Glad you and my uncle made your first million on carburettors, not brewing smoke?" someone asked, and Howard was blotto enough that he didn't recognise the voice until Joey grabbed him into a hug.
Three years had filled Joey out, and he half crushed the wind out of Howard before Joey shoved him back and held him at arm's length. He'd broken his nose, but his cheekbones and jaw had hardened, his face lean where his shoulders were broad. He stared right back at Howard, and said, "Sixteen and all grown up, huh?"
Howard hid his blush by patting Joey's cheek and demanding, "Who let a delinquent like you in? I didn't even know you were out." Uncle Matteo had said that the Manfredis were working on it, and Howard knew enough not to ask what that meant. Matteo had also said there'd be a surprise at their party, and Howard guessed this was it.
"Last week." Joey leaned before he added, "But I had to see about some things."
"Explains the fire," Howard said lightly, like he hadn't seen the aftermath–or if he had, that the sight of Bobby Fallucchi's charred body hadn't made him lose his breakfast in the gutter–and Joey laughed and hugged him again.
Two years: the ache of missing Joey had made it feel like he'd had been gone forever, and now familiar warmth of his touch was like he'd never left.
"Come on, Howie. Let's put Prohibition in the grave like we was Irish." He grabbed a bottle of whiskey from someone, and Howard didn't remember much after that.
Howard was riding so high that he wasn't really worried about whose cock was inside him. Whoever it was had patted his ass, and Howard had just nodded and let his legs fall apart. Steam half-blinded everyone, and most didn't look anyway, focusing on the moans and on the feel of the cock or ass in front of them, not on faces.
It was that singular concentration that Howard came here for–and, for that matter came here for–and he'd fallen into it for hours already that night, mind simultaneously crystalline and pleasure-fogged. Stark Enterprises, and dead parents, and brewing war forgotten, for a few hours.
The man fucking him pulled out enough to roll him over, and Howard grinned and murmured, "Yeah, let's get a look at you." The words, "Fuck, you're beautiful," drawled out before he even saw who was leaning over him. When Howard did he laughed and dug his heels into Joe's ass, pulling him back in. "Didn't figure you for this place." Though he'd pictured him here often enough, on the rare lonely night when he had to give himself a hand.
Joey didn't say anything, but pinned Howard's wrists to the bench above his head, holding them easily with one hand, while he made Howard suck the fingers of the other. He was fucking hard enough to edge into pain, eyes possessive and fierce, and for a second, just as he came, Howard was afraid of him. Then Howard spilled across them both, and Joey laughed into his neck, and Howard let himself forget again.
He thought that Joey left pretty soon after he pulled out, but Howard played with another guy–rolling off the table to suck him off from the floor–before heading out himself.
He knew which way Joey would go, twisting through the Village before cutting across Chinatown toward the old neighbourhood. He walked confidently, sure that at twenty one that he no longer needed to skulk home. Who on the East Side didn't know that Joseph ran the Manfredis now that Matteo was gone? Or what happened to anyone who crossed him.
"Walk me home?" Howard asked when he was a few paces back. He was a little out of breath from half jogging to catch up.
The flash of streetlight that cut across them caught Joey's face as it wavered between surprise and consternation, then he stepped into shadow again, tipping his head so his hat hid his expression. His laugh sounded forced. "That's a bit of a walk these days, ain't that, Stark?" he asked.
Howard ignored the jab at his new Midtown address and fell into step with Joey, the two of them taking over the sidewalk. "I'll walk you home then."
Joey hesitated, throwing them out of sync, before pressing on at a brisker pace. "Suit yourself," he snapped, but he glanced at Howard from under his hat brim and added more gently, "Just so long as you aren't looking for the kind of welcome you just got."
Howard looked away, hoping the shadows obscured his own expression. So there was that. Joey had just as much reason as Howard to keep his bath house visits secret. If he didn't want the greater risk of taking Howard home, even Howard's hypocricy didn't extend to calling him on it.
"Wouldn't dream of it." The lie rolled off Howard's tongue easy as sucking cock. After all, he'd hoped a lot of things over the years, and he'd gotten most of them, too. He'd just have to let this one pass him by.
If it hadn't been for cussedness, as well as coffee, Howard would have fallen over days ago. In the time it had taken to lock away every potentially dangerous thing he'd ever made–from his light amplification experiments to Steve's blood–he'd thought more than once that he could have used some of that Midnight Oil. Shame it made men into homicidal maniacs, but then a lot of things were a shame.
When he finished at last, slammed the vault doors closed and put the concealments in place, he decided to go for a walk, the dark side of dawn or not. Maybe he'd see what the action was like in Times Square this time of War.
He remembered coming this far up town when he was young, and how strange the empty streets had seemed, how much space there had been, but it was even more so now. All those boys gone to Europe and Japan, and everyone else keeping their heads down, even the city lights were dimmed to protect the harbour. He almost turned back, thinking of the Square as a shadow of itself, but then shook his head and kept on down Broadway.
"Yeah, a lot of things are a shame," he said, voice startlingly loud in the night.
Howard hadn't gotten four blocks when a Lincoln Continental coupe purred up next to him, windows already down. Howard knew who it was going to be before Manfredi even asked him if he was looking for a ride. Word got out fast, or at least it did when you were in the family.
"You bet," Howard said as he slid onto the leather bench, "Haven't you heard that when you walk alone you walk with Hirohito?"
Joey laughed, and Howard's heart lifted a little. "Fact is I hadn't. What's your pleasure?"
Howard shrugged. Now that he was sitting down, he was too tired to snap at even easy bait. "Where you headed?"
"Out west," Manfredi said, rolling away from the curb. The car rumbled under him, sounding like home. "Some new place in Nevada."
"West sounds good. Long as we don't stop in Santa Fe." There other horrors lay, and he had yet to work out what to do about them.
"Nah, I want to drive straight through."
He was asleep on Manfredi's shoulder before they hit Weehawken.
"Mister Copelin the Younger is here to see you, sir," Jarvis said, and Howard sighed and held his glass out for a refill.
It wasn't that Howard didn't like the gentlemen from Copelin, Copelin and Sterne, only that his lawyers seemed to bring more bad news than good these last few years, even after he'd gotten clear of the treason charges, and he was getting sick of hearing from them.
Teddy Copelin Jr. slumped into the chair across from Howard without invitation. He wasn't much past twenty five, but had already made a start towards his father's head of iron-grey hair. He never seemed to take Howard seriously when told he needed to learn to relax.
"What do you know about a gangster named Manfredi?" he asked, not saying hello, either.
Howard shrugged. "What do you know about him?"
"I know he's under indictment for list of crimes longer than the notches on your bed post."
It took a long pull from his glass to hide Howard's reaction, and he knew that Copelin knew he was doing it. Damn. "How'd that bring you to my door?"
The DA put out feelers,"–drinks with college-buddy papa, no doubt–"see if you'd testify as to events in Las Vegas in the summer of '44."
"You know," Howard said drawing out the words, after a long moment, in which he considered the things he'd seen Joe do over the years, and how he could lay each of his blows against one of Howard's making, and not even begin to pull even, and how seeing Joe felt like seeing the East Side, and how after all he'd done, the East Side still pulled at his heart. "You know," he said again, more decisively, "I was drunk off my head that whole week, don't even remember what city we were in."
"Dad thought you might say that." Copelin's tone carried the disappointment of a man deprived of expected leverage, but Howard didn't care.
If he and Joe were both damned, and surely they were by now, they might as well be damned together.