There were times that David wished his father hadn't gotten laid off. He wished that him and Les were still in school and that he wasn't ridiculed for selling on the streets with the kids that the rich so relentlessly hated. He would get frustrated. One of the boys would say the wrong thing or push him the wrong way and David would have to calm himself before continuing. Because sometimes he forgot how much he loved them. Sometimes he told himself that him and Les had once been above this. But then there were nights like tonight. Nights when he knew that no matter what, he would always want to protect these boys and nothing would stop him from doing just that.
His best friend was laying on the couch. The smooth talking, too-charming-for-his-own-good boy was asleep, underneath a pile of his rowdy, over-the-top brothers. Quite literally, actually. At least seven or eight kids were on top of him, trying to soak in some warmth or protection. And David could only smile while watching them.
He'd read them a book. It was raining outside and the thunder kept too many of them awake, cowering underneath their thin blankets as lightning flashed through the bunk room. It hadn't been long before the littlest boy had sprinted down the stairs crying for Jack because he couldn't sleep. So Jack scooped up the boy and walked back up the stairs only to find so many other kids quietly crying because of all the bad memories resurfacing in their heads. He'd taken them down and Davey told them to sit down, because he was going to read them a story. It worked. It wasn't long before twenty-something boys were snoring and using each other and pillows so they could doze off.
David made sure he was quiet. He carefully set the book down to his side before he did what he'd done for his own little brother (who had better have been asleep at home right then) and gently took the smallest and youngest newsie- Romeo- up in his arms.
The boy was too light. He weighed about as much as a toddler should have weighed. And that scared David. With the storms that were surrounding them, this kid might be the first to get sick. But he tried not to think about it as he carried the sleeping child up the stairs and into the bunk room. As he walked up their stairs, he felt the boy snuggle into him for warmth and David's heart broke. He wished he could give these kids more.
The bunk room was big. But he'd been in it enough times to know who slept where and who shared with who. So he carefully set Romeo down on his bunk and smoothed his dark hair away from his face. "Goodnight, Romeo..."
And then he walked down the stairs, picking up another small boy in his arms, letting the kid rest his head on his shoulder. And he walked him up the stairs not even really thinking about what he was doing. Soon, he was picking up the littles one by one and placing them in their beds, tucking blankets around them until all the boys who'd been laying on top of Jack were sleeping peacefully in their own beds.
He should've stopped. He wasn't the boys' mother, after all. But he couldn't help but look down at the older boys. Specs, Race, Albert, Crutchie... all of them. He scooped them up and they clung to him easily. David didn't understand why. Not until he picked up Albert and the red headed boy whispered out a name in his sleep. "Jack..."
It was then that the new boy understood that he had no comprehension of what his closest friend had done for these kids day in and day out. It was natural for all of them to be carried up the stairs by the oldest boy and their leader. He was their big brother in every way but blood. And suddenly, it was overwhelming the amount of admiration he had for the boy laying, dead asleep on the couch.
He lay boys down in their beds and let them wrap their arms around whoever else was already in it. He made sure they were warm and comfortable and asleep before he left them, going to get another one of their brothers. And after twenty or so trips up the stairs, David was able to smile back at the room where his boys were finally able to sleep, despite the rain that pounded against the filthy windows and the thunder that got farther and farther away. And with one final whisper goodnight, David descended the stairs to find his best friend.
What he found, he was sure had to be an illusion.
He'd known Jack to calm kids down and wake them from nightmares to hold them and bring them back to reality. But David had never thought for a second he would be put in that position.
Jack was twitching and writhing around, trying to grasp for something, probably to ground him. For one of his brothers. But he found nothing. So David rushed to him and grasped onto his hands with his own. It was then that he heard the other boy mumbling, "Crutchie... no... pl's don' hurt 'm... it'll be okay..."
"Jack..." David whispered, wanting to wake his friend, though not wanting to startle him. But Jack's head just kept turning back and forth as if he was truly looking at things through his eyelids, seeing scenes he most likely never had wanted to see.
"Breathe... pl's just breath... Race... wake up..."
"Jackie, all of your boys are okay..."
It kept on like that. Jack called out for his brothers, begging them to be okay. And it broke David's heart. It never occurred to him that the one that fended off the nightmares could also have them. The only thing that David could do was give Jack a quick shove to make it stop. After all, he was sure Jack would prefer a startled awakening over seeing his precious boy's hurt. So he did it, shouting out Jack's name as he did so. He hadn't expected for Jack to gasp and scramble away as best he could, breathing hard as he sat up. But when he looked up and saw Davey, he took a breath and deflated on himself, doing his best to lose the terror that was on his face.
"Hey, Davey..." he sighed, his voice coming out steady even through his shaken breaths as he tried to compose himself. He let his face fall into his hands.
Despite what he'd just witnessed, David sat beside his friend and offered him a kind smile. "Hey, Jackie," he responded. And for a while, they were left sitting in a comfortable silence as the Manhattan leader tried to catch his breath. Thunder still rumbled outside and rain poured. But none of it mattered as David sat with his best friend and rubbed his back while he watched him blink the tears out of his eyes.
"Sorry, Dave..." Jack laughed out a little when he was done. "I didn't-"
"You had a nightmare, Jack... it happens." He pat Jack's shoulder, a smile playing over his features.
"Not a nightmare..." Jack responded, wiping at his cheeks. Even in the dark, David could make out the tear tracks.
Memories, David told himself silently. And his heart clenched up in his chest at the painful reminder that these boys had seen, done and been through much more than anyone could understand. And it hurt to watch Jack carry it all on his shoulders. He hoped that it wouldn't crush the boy. All he could do was try and take bits and pieces along the way.
"I took the boys upstairs. They're all sleepin'," David assured quietly. All Jack could do was nod his head and let the boy beside him continue to rub his back as he tried to force the terrible images out of his head. He let silent tears fall down his face as he stared ahead.
"David?" his voice shook a little, but he still sounded like the brave, charismatic boy that he was. And his friend hummed in response. "Thanks..."
And that was how that rainy night was spent. Two friends, sitting with each other, doing their best to keep nightmares away. The boys upstairs had to have people looking out for them. And they were those people. David Jacobs and Jack Kelly. Two best friends from different worlds.