The fire escape is still too warm to be entirely comfortable. Sweat from Usnavi’s palms coats the metal as he shifts forward and tries unsuccessfully to catch a breeze. Sweat prickles under his collar, persistent and itching. He should go back inside and find something cold to drink.
At the very least, he should offer to replace Benny’s drink; there’s no way it hasn’t already gone warm. He was raised to be a better host than this -- not that it matters, now. There’s no one here to judge him but Benny, and he’s fairly sure that his friend has other things on his mind right now.
On Usnavi’s mind right now: the island Claudia wanted for him, the drinks coming cold and sweet and the tide rolling in every day, faithful like a sunrise. If he closes his eyes: the rhythmic wave of traffic ebbing and flowing, the clink of Benny’s bottle when he rests it against the metal landing.
It’s close. He’s not sure if it’s close enough to make her happy, if she’s watching him now. He’s not sure if it’s close enough to make him happy, and he’s not sure where to go with that. It’s the type of thing he would take to Abuela , coffee in hand so he had an excuse for coming to her, but.
He knows she’d want whatever he did, and right now he can’t think of a single thing that could be less helpful to know.
Usnavi breathes, feels the night air catch thick in his throat. He has to keep it small, right now. Sour city air, metal warm under his fingertips, Benny beside him. Anything more complicated than that and he’s going to start coming apart in ways he can’t afford to. Not now, not with all this responsibility he’s inherited.
A decent cup of coffee, a place for Sonny to land, and as many stories as he can hold in his hands. He had his chance to fly from all of it and he didn’t. Regret isn’t really an option now.
Benny stretches his leg out to bump against Usnavi’s. Usnavi breathes, and keeps it small. He presses back, just for a moment. Benny holds steady under the pressure, and Usnavi’s next breath comes easier, the next even easier than that.
“You alright?” Benny asks.
“Yeah.” Usnavi swipes a hand over his face, grimaces when it comes back damp. He needs a shower, needs to wash off this day, this week. “Sorry, I’m probably not great company right now.”
“It’s fine,” Benny says. “I needed a minute, too.”
Usnavi glances over at that. Benny is watching the horizon, even though there’s nothing to see -- the sun sank ages ago, and there are no stars. Usnavi can’t imagine what he’s trying to find in the cityscape, but it doesn’t feel right to push.
There are questions he should probably ask, that a good friend would ask. About Nina, about work. About the way their home is shifting and changing around them, like they put their roots down into sand instead of concrete.
Benny feels it too, understands it in a way Usnavi doesn’t think he gets enough credit for. Both of them out on the fire escape, and Benny has his feet firmly planted, something tense in the line of his shoulders. Like bracing for impact will be enough to see him through, like it will be enough to save him.
It reads as arrogance to people who don’t know him, even people who do, but Usnavi knows it comes from years of experience. Benny learned a long time ago that if he falls, there’s no one to grab him.
That’s the difference between them, Usnavi thinks. The fire escape could collapse right now and Benny would be expecting it. It could happen twice, could happen a hundred times, and Usnavi would still be surprised, would keep climbing out onto fire escapes and expecting the impact not to hurt.
Benny finally meets his gaze, raises an eyebrow at whatever he reads in Usnavi’s face. “What?”
“Nothing,” Usnavi says, because he’s a fucking coward. He’s a horrible liar, too, but they’re both tired enough that he figures it won’t matter. He doesn’t know how he would even begin to explain himself even if he wanted to.
“You’re thinking loud.”
Usnavi snorts. “So are you.”
Benny’s teeth flash -- a smile or a grimace, either way it’s tired, worn around the edges. He takes another drink. His hand wrapped around the bottle, thumb toying with the slowly peeling label, mouth damp when he pulls the bottle back.
Usnavi holds the thought there, still small, so he can take it down without choking.
Talk to me sticks in his throat -- he’s not sure if he’s offering help or asking for it.
Benny with his feet planted like nothing’s ever made him afraid. Usnavi is afraid to jar him.
Usnavi is supposed to be the one left stuck. He wishes it were true, wishes Benny’s teasing amounted to anything real, because he wants to be that. Wants to offer more than a sympathetic ear to the worries he hears in his store every day, wants to be something his people can hold onto. Something Benny can hold onto.
“Do you want another drink?” he asks, like that makes up for anything, like that gives Benny anything meaningful.
Usnavi nods, the cityscape swimming in front of him. It looks nothing like the ocean, sounds nothing like it. He shuts his eyes, passes his hands through his hair because he doesn’t know what else to do with them.
“I’m glad you stayed,” Benny says into the quiet. It hangs in the air, each word rising over the other. The floor doesn’t come out from under them, not yet, but it’s there if he needs it: a ladder in the dark.
Usnavi lowers his hands to press his palms flat against the metal. It’s cooling, slowly. He rests his weight there and leans back to look up at the sky.