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United by Beating Hearts

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In the summer, Albert falls in love with Race. This, of course, is not strictly true, because Albert has been in love with Race for as long as he can remember. But it is that summer that he realizes just how much he cares for Race, and it happens, as it always does, at the most inconvenient of times.

Love is rarely convenient. It is rarely easy, either. Love, for Albert, has always come with whale-like proportions, and with perfectly imperfect timing.

It happens like this: they strike, they fight, and Crutchie is taken. Albert sees him go, from where the bull had just landed him a good blow to the eye. He had dropped, intending to sweep the bull’s legs out from under him, and he hears Crutchie shout for Jack, at Romeo, to Finch. He sees Snyder cruelly pinch Crutchie’s bad ankle, hears the boy’s pained scream as he scrapes along the ground.

There’s nothing he can do, now. It’s too late.

He hauls himself to his feet. The bull has disappeared, to god knows where, and the coast is clear. He stumbles across the square, seeing little exploding shapes in neon color, to where Romeo is still on hands and knees.

“Romeo? Romeo, you with me?”

The kid settles back on his knees, eyes a little unfocused. “Albert?”

“Yeah, it’s me. Can you stand?” He reaches a hand down and pulls Romeo to his feet, throwing Romeo’s arm over his shoulder and supporting him.

Romeo makes a small sound, somewhere between a groan and a sob. “Don’ feel so good.”

“You gonna hurl?”

Romeo nods and stumbles two steps away to brace his hand against the wagon and throw up whatever he’d eaten that morning.

Albert makes a face and steps back because, gross, but he runs an awkward hand down Romeo’s back. It’s not the first time someone has puked in front of him.

When Romeo has emptied his stomach, he looks back to Albert, tired and sad. “We lost,” he mumbles.

Albert doesn’t say anything, just sets his jaw and offers his arm to support him. They walk together, back toward the lodging house, and Albert’s thoughts lock on Race. Where had he gone? Race did some time in the refuge a couple years ago, and he’s been skittish about Snyder ever since. If he even saw the guy, he’d cheese it.

But Race wouldn’t have run from this fight. Not the Race Albert knows.

A sudden deep dread settles in the pit of Albert’s stomach. Did Snyder get Race too?

They gather at the lodging house, limping in from various places. Specs survived with nothing worse than getting the wind knocked out of him, and he takes it upon himself to start taking a count. He’s always been the fastest, and he runs through the city—Elmer is home, being fussed over by an older sister; Buttons only stopped by home to tell her siblings she was okay; Smalls and Josephine all went back to the girl’s lodging house; the Jacobs brothers have gone home; Sniper has gone to her father’s Laundromat next to Jacobi’s. Finch shows up with an armful of medical supplies. No one asks where he got them. No one quite wants to know.

They start patching one another up. Buttons stitches up a few cuts. The scrape on Albert’s arm doesn’t need stiches, but he wraps it tightly anyway. Romeo sits quietly on the apple crate in the corner, looking dazed and sick. Albert sits on the ground by him, brow furrowed and jaw set. Race still hasn’t shown up.

He doesn’t show up until later that afternoon, leading Checker—one of the youngest newsies—by the hand. He just walks right in to the common room, sporting a black eye, but nothing worse.

Albert jumps up, relief coursing through him. “Where were ya?”

“Relax, I was helping this one do some ducking and weaving.” He rubs his knuckles over the little boy’s head, who grins in response. Race lets go of his hand and shoos him away. “Where’s Jack?”

Albert shakes his head. “Hasn’t shown.”

Race’s face turns serious, his smile sliding away. “Snyder?”

“No—Snyder got. Snyder got Crutchie.”

The myriad of expressions that cross Race’s face is impressive. Every single emotion he feels in that moment is played out in vivid detail in his eyes and the twitches of his lips. There is fear, there is anger, there is sadness, and finally his features settle into a mask of determination, eyes gone cold.

“Race.”

“Yeah.” His fierce blue eyes drill into Albert.

He needs Race to help him, to tell him what to do. Race is Jack’s second—it took him time to realize that, but it’s always been true. And now it’s up to him. With Jack gone and the newsies defeated, they need Race to lead them. And lead them now.

Somehow, he doesn’t have to say anything. Race and Albert have always been a team, partners in crime, starting jokes for the other to finish, one playing pranks while the other distracts the target. Apparently that holds true now, because he understands what Albert needs him to do.

Race lifts his chin, looking over the assembled battered crew. Suddenly he puts on a bright grin, spreading his hands out. “How’s about some supper, boys? How does boiled papes sound?”

There’s a faint, weak, chuckle. The joke hits too close to home, but it does stir them from their positions. Kloppman will be kind enough to give them dinner on credit, surely. Henry and Specs head that direction. A few boys shuffle after them, hopeful and hungry. Romeo mumbles about needing to go to bed and Mush gives him a concerned look and offers to walk upstairs with him. One of the younger boys finds the jacks set and starts a game with the littles. They circle up, too young to understand the gravity of the strike, and simply happy they didn’t have to go selling that day.

Albert still leans on the wall as Race continues to make jokes and tease the boys until they look less like kicked puppies. When the room has mostly cleared, Race’s shoulders slump and he fishes his cigar out of his pocket, jamming it in his mouth and nearly chewing down on it.

Albert claps a hand to his shoulder, brotherly. He wants to pull him into a hug—a foreign thought. They didn’t offer affection like that, not so open. But he still wants it, after all they’ve been though today, and at the same time it does not feel right, so he settles for the hand on the shoulder.

Race looks up at him, face open and tired. “How’d I do?”

Albert gives him a little nod. “You’s doin’ fine.” He lets go of his shoulder and studies the sweat in Race’s curls, the bruise under his eye. “What’re we gonna do now?”

Race heaves a sigh. “In the mornin’, we go sell papes. We’s gotta, if we’s gonna eat. And then, we wait for Jack to come back.”

Albert has known Race most of his life. And this is the thing he will never understand: that Race has retained his innocence through all he has been through. No, he’s not naïve, but he is faithful. Jack might not even be alive, for all they know, not if Snyder or some of the crueler-minded bulls got to him. But Race still trusts, still believes that Jack is coming back, and will lead them to victory even now.

In a world so cold, Race is still warm.

While Albert might not trust that the universe is kind enough to spare them Jack, he does trust Race. And it’s in that moment he realizes he’d follow Race no matter what happens. No matter how the strike ends, how their lives will continue with raised prices, how they’ll continue in the absence of Jack, or even what they’ll do after dinner tonight—Albert will stick with Race to the very end.

The truth resounds in his chest, stills his breathing.

The sounds of dinner beginning (God bless Kloppman) come from the other room, and Race steps toward to the door. He looks back at Albert as if to say, you coming? For a moment, the light hits just right to highlight Race’s mess of curls under his hat, the angle of his jaw, the curve of his lips around the cigar. He looks like shit, what with the black eye and sweat and dirt and general mess of it all.

Albert loves him.

Damn.

His first thought is to say something, spill it out in a rushed breath, because Albert has never been good at not giving in to his impulses, but he doesn’t know how. The words lay tangled somewhere between his heart and mouth, caught on the lump in his throat. So instead, he reaches up and snatches the cigar from Race’s mouth and sprints away, running from the indignant shout and pursuing feet.

Hell. He’s in love with this boy, and there’s not a goddamn thing he can do about it.

*

Albert spends the night at the lodge, even though he has a home he can go to. It would definitely be wiser financially, but he has never been good with money. Most of the boys are scrupulous and can figure up how much or little they can spend at the drop of a hat, and that’s because they’ve been doing this for a long time. Albert hasn’t always been doing this, and while he’s been doing it a long time, he hasn’t always had to count every penny. He hasn’t always had to pay attention to cost.

That was before.

Albert tries not to think about that too much.

The tired, beaten crew drag themselves out selling that morning because they have to. They have to, because if they don’t, they won’t eat. They have to. And they have to so that Romeo and Mike and Jojo can eat, because they’re too busted up to sell.

Race leads them into battle, jaw set. “Ain’t callin’ you sweetheart no more,” he mutters at Weasel, who doesn’t say a word. Albert shuffles behind him, slapping his money on the box with a bit more anger than necessary.

The Delancies sneer at them. “Look at you,” says Oscar, “I could pound the lot a’ ya and you’s wouldn’t even be able to fight back.”

“Gave in at the first sign a’ trouble,” Morris jeers. “Heard even Jack’s on the lam. Turned tail, first sign a’ tha bulls.”

Albert glares at them with all the hatred he can muster. He has a reason to.

“What, you worried, DaSilva? Yous thinking a’ your brother?”

Anger rises in him, thinking of Brendan. Of how he’d dragged himself home after they’d beat the trolley workers. And now here Albert is, just another DaSilva failing in a fight. Wouldn’t his father be proud. “You better shut your mouth,” he warns.

“Albert,” Race says softly.

“Want to hear how he begged for mercy when I was hittin’ him?” Oscar cracks his knuckles. “Bet I could make you say the same things.”

Mush comes up behind Albert, fists clenched. “Leave him alone.”

“What’re you gonna do about it, tiny?”

Mush jerks as if he’ll jump them right then, but Specs catches his arm. “Stop it.” His voice is soft, but firm. He looks at Albert and makes a motion with his head to tell him to move on.

Reluctantly, Albert throws the Delancies one last glare and walks out the gates with Race.

“You can’t let ‘em get to you like that,” Race says, throwing his arm over Albert’s shoulders. “Let’s go make up some real good headlines. Extry, extry, fartbrains can’t kill us today.”

Albert shrugs out from under Race’s arm because he doesn’t like being touched when angry. Or at all. Most of the time, Race can touch him whenever and however he likes, but not other people. And right now, even Race is too much. “Shaddup.”

Race looks hurt, and shoves his hand into his pocket. He emerges with a cigar and shoves it between his lips. He doesn’t even say goodbye before heading toward Brooklyn.

Albert sighs. Clearly he messed that up. The feeling of Race’s arm across his shoulders lingers, burning. God knows Race will touch him again. He’s a touchy person. But when he touches Albert again, he won’t mean it. Not the way Albert wants him to.

There’s not time for this now. Newspapers need selling. Headlines need fabricating. And pennies need collecting.

*

By some unspoken agreement, they all end up at Jacobi’s. Due to its proximity to the lodging house and the old man’s generosity, it’s a favorite place of theirs. Normally they climb all over the tables and play poker and raise ruckus, but this time they slump in chairs and lay on the floor. Elmer falls asleep, his chin on his chest. Poor kid. He’s only been a newsie for a couple months, and now he’s been sucked into this.

Jacobi gives them all waters, sympathetic in his own way. And they sit there, marinating in their own defeat, until Katherine walks in.

Well damn, they’re front page news. While this is very exciting, and most of the boys fight over the paper to spot themselves in the picture, Albert waits. He can wait for something like that, and besides, someone needs to tell Katherine and Davey where Jack went. If the Delancies are telling the truth.

Les is incensed, shoving on Albert’s chest. “Jack don’t run from no fight!” he protests.

“Take it down, shortstop,” Albert gently pokes his shoulder. “I’m just reportin’.”

Clearly, Race thinks they are being too serious, because he breaks in. “For jumpin’ jack’s sake, can you stow the seriousity and drink in the moment?” He throws his arm around Albert and pulls him close.

There it is again, that wanted unwanted contact. Albert wants it, he does, but not like this. He’s not looking for that friendly-brotherly playfighting thing that Race does with everyone. He wants something all his own.

Race doesn’t even notice his discomfort, already moving into the next phase of his joke.

Race throws a little extra goofy wiggle into his step as he proudly pronounces the world his erster. Albert valiantly tries to ignore how his ass wiggles when he’s acting goofy like this. It’s a losing battle.

What?” Romeo asks, clearly still trying to figure out if the concussion had messed up his hearing, too.

“Ya erster.” Race grins around his cigar, a twinkle in his eye.

Oyster, Albert thinks, comprehension dawning. He means oyster. It’s genius, really, the way Race makes himself stupid for others’ sake. Albert would have never thought of something like that.

Race gets them all to dream big, to let go for just a moment, and imagine what life would be like if they really could have whatever they want. It’s silly, it’s fun, but it hurts a little, too.

Albert watches his friends saying the things they wish for most—Henry wants a sandwich, for crying out loud, but maybe it’s not really the sandwich he wants, but a return to the life with his family and father at the deli, where sandwiches were readily available.

Race declares himself king of New York, like a child declaring themselves king of the hill on a playground, and Albert wants to laugh. They’ll never be kings. They’re just scrappy boys with their picture in one paper.

Stow the seriousity, Race had said, so Albert tries.

When Race comes toward him, passing the joke off, Albert takes it. He pokes fun at himself, at his inability to manage money, how he always seems to show up with far less than he made. Blow his dough, he calls it, whether or not that’s actually the truth. And maybe, it’s not that he wants money, but he—like Henry—wants to go back to a time associated with money. When there was money, there was his mother.

Race gets them to have spoon fights (Smalls whoops his ass), and then Albert and Buttons grab brooms to have a sword fight, and suddenly they’re laughing and their bruised ribs hurt less and their fears are assuaged a bit and there’s some hope again.

Hope. It’s a nice feeling to have again.

*

After Jack’s betrayal at the rally, Albert finds Race in the common room of the lodging house, slumped on an apple crate, head between his shoulders.

“Race.” Albert puts a hand on his shoulder, feeling the muscles underneath his palm.

Race looks up at him, and there are tears in his eyes. “He betrayed us, Albert. I can’t—” he sniffs and looks down again.

Specs comes running down the stairs with Katherine, their heads close together.

“Fire escape?” Albert asks quietly.

Race nods, swiping his hand under his nose. Head down, they go up the flight of stairs into the bunk room and out the window. They settle on the platform, legs dangling over the alley below, railing keeping them from falling. It’s their place, lit by the moon, cooler than inside, but not invading Jack’s penthouse. Albert can’t count the number of times they’ve sat out here, talking and joking. When Albert first became a newsie; after Race lost bets; planning pranks; on the anniversary of Albert’s mother’s death; on birthdays; on good selling days when they laugh and use their spare cash to buy penny candy; sharing cigars and blowing smoke over the alley.

The fire escape is where Race goes to share his secrets. The fire escape is where Albert goes to hide his biggest one.

He may have only just realized it, but Albert has been in love with Race for as long as he can remember. There was never a time when Albert didn’t look at Race through a hazy golden lens, when Race didn’t hold the key to his heart and the accidental leash to his loyalty.

“I can’t believe it,” Race croaks, snuffling once and looking over at Albert, haggard and pained. “He just—” he makes a vague gesture before dropping his hand heavily into his lap. He shoves his cigar between his lips and yanks his out matchbox to strike a flame, light the cigar, and shake out the spark.

The lines of tendons in Race’s fingers mesmerize him, the way they ripple under the skin in a reflexive dance.

He exhales a slow cloud, watching the curling white patterns in the night. He offers the cigar.

Albert puts his lips where Race’s lips had just been and takes a slow inhalation. He doesn’t smoke often, but when he does, he takes time to enjoy the odd burning sensation.

Race takes the cigar back to puff out small rings, one after the other. They float for only a moment before disintegrating. “We even had Brooklyn. The great—the great Spot Conlon deigned to grace us with his presence.” He gestures broadly with the cigar, a scornful flourish.

“And?” Albert prompts, his voice too loud.

Shoulders slumped, Race turns teary eyes to him. “We coulda won.” There’s a beat. “We coulda won, Al, and Jack he—he jus’ threw it all out the winda like we’s don’t mean shit to ‘im.” He takes a quick, angry puff and hands the cigar to Albert.

Albert takes a measured drag.

Race twists his hat in his hands. He has always been quick and sharp, emotions pent in him like wild birds beating at the bars of his ribcage. He was simply not built to be subtle, and Albert sees every wave of anger roaring through him now. He spins the cigar between his fingers, and waits.

Eventually, the fight bleeds out of him, and he drops his hat to the platform and reaches for the cigar. He takes one more pull before stubbing it out and tucking it back in his pocket. “What’re we gonna do, Al?”

“To hell with Jack,” he grunts. “We fight for our rights.”

Race snorts. “What, you think me and the walking Mouth can do it? Keep dreaming, bone-head.”

“You said it. Even Spot Conlon was there. We coulda won. Even without—without Jack, we could win.”

“Well, listen to the optimist. Who put liquor in your tea?”

“Race, I’m serious—liquor in my tea? The hell does that mean?”

Race shoves his shoulder playfully—a distraction. Albert chuckles and punches him in the arm—an agreement. They devolve into play-fighting, shoving and poking, until Race suddenly laughs aloud. Albert feels his own laugher bubble up in response, a single, loud HA! that would probably make birds fly in terror.

Race tackles him, knocking him back onto the platform with an oomf. Race lays on his chest, hands splayed flat, and nose only inches from his own. Albert smells his sweat and the lingering cigar smoke on his breath. He stares into Race’s face, sharply shadowed by the rising moon.

The first thing he thinks to do is kiss him.

The next thing he thinks to do is push a single finger onto the tip of Race’s nose.

He chooses the second option.

Snorting, Race jerks back and rolls off him. “You’re so weird, Al.”

“If I’m so weird, how come you’s still hangin’ round? Ain’t you got better fish to fry?”

“Fish? I’m more of an oyster man, myself.”

Albert turns his head. “So I’m an oyster now?”

“Fancy clam with the poyle inside.”

Albert sighs. “You’re an idiot, Race.”

Grumbling, he says, “I’m an idiot. But I’m here.”

He reaches out and places his hand on Race’s, between them on the platform.

The calm is shattered by Specs shoving his head out the window and saying, “Jack’s back! And he’s got a plan.”

*

Irony. He thinks that’s the fancy word Davey had applied. They are making the papers to take down Pulitzer in his own basement, as he sleeps.

Spot sends his boys to spread out and keep watch, and Mush takes sentry by the window. Albert waits in line as the papers fly off the press, stacked and tied and tossed from newsie to newsie until they are being spread through the whole city.

And Jack is leading them. God knows he fucked up, but he’s back, and he’s on their side, so Albert forgives him. It’s a simple choice between right and wrong.

Race is still hurt, under his bravado, and Albert watches and he and Jack do a small dance when he hands Race his papers. Race signals every move he’s going to make, like they’re fresh out of the refuge again, like they’re years younger, like they’re more afraid. And Jack is begging with his eyes for forgiveness, and Race will give it, but it will take time.

This is not like when Jack stole a customer from Race or when he ate the last of the penny candy before Race got some. This is different, bigger. Deeper.

Race walks the line, giving shoulder pats and firm words. The air is tense and heavy with the change that is coming. Once and for all, they will win this war. Midnight strikes. The papes are printed. The revolution is rising.

Albert takes his papes and gives Jack a nod. Whatever has happened, they are good. Jack nods back, and salutes him. Albert feels a little swell of pride. Jack can trust him, and he knows he can trust him.

Albert climbs back out the window, following Elmer. Mush, arms crossed over his chest to give them more bulk, gives him a nod. Albert nods back, and lets himself smile, a small and giddy thing.

“We’re gonna win this thing,” he whispers, and holds up his stack for Mush to see.

The boy’s expression goes from “cross me and I kill you” to “adorable and excited and I won’t hurt a fly” in a matter of seconds. He grins, open mouthed, at Albert.

“We’s gonna win!” he repeats, and fist pumps.

Albert nods eagerly, and looks at Mush for a moment before letting the boy pull him into a bruising hug. “Be safe,” Mush whispers, and Albert heads on his way.

*

After, the newsies hold a celebration in the lodging house, tired though they may be. Most of the boroughs are represented, spilling out of the common room and dining room and up the stairs. Katherine had gone and bought dozens of tiny little cakes—the kind Albert has seen in the windows of bakeries, and thinks he remembers the taste of—and everyone has had one a piece. Someone has managed to find a phonograph and is playing jaunty music. Boys and girls move through the lodging house, raising a cheerful celebration. It’s loud, and Albert keeps tapping his fingers on his knee or patting his palm against his thigh.

On the lone couch in the common room, Albert sits beside Crutchie, one elbow on his shoulder. The kid hasn’t stopped smiling since he came back, even though he’s barely walking. They’d been exclaiming over the cakes—Albert ate his in one bite, but Crutchie put tiny bits of it into his mouth at a time, letting it dissolve on his tongue. The look in his eyes could illuminate a darkened street.

Romeo and Mush are swordfighting with sticks and broom handles. Albert’s stick is resting against his knee, and if they prompt him, he’ll join. But for now he’s content.

Jack, Davey, Spot, Race, and a few other regional newsie leaders are having a huddle in the corner. Race keeps trading his unlit cigar from hand to hand and putting between his lips and then back out again. Not that Albert is staring.

Les comes bounding up. “Hey Albert, look what I won!” He holds up a New York Giants’ baseball card.

“Well, look at that, shortstop, you’s a regular gambler!” He pokes Les in the tummy, the prominent roundness of childhood and regular meals an easy target.

Les giggles, curling protectively around his middle.

Over his head, Albert looks to Buttons, surrounded by a group of littles. Buttons has about a billion younger siblings, so it’s no surprise that she’s acting big sister.

Bounding up, Albert snatches Les’ hat and holds it over his head. Giggling, he bounces up and down, grasping fruitlessly, until Finch steps over and hoists him up. He ruffles Les’ hair affectionately.

In retaliation, Albert steals Finch’s slingshot from his back pocket and passes it to Crutchie, who tosses it to JoJo, who passes it to Elmer. And Elmer is really just too sweet for his own good, because he meekly hands it back to a fuming Finch.

Finch rolls his eyes and grumbles under his breath, and wanders off to where Henry and Specs and some of the Brooklyn boys are talking by the stairs. He casts a look back over his shoulder at Albert, flashing a smile to show no hard feelings.

The meeting in the corner breaks up and Jack and Race head over to the couch. Jack settles himself by Crutchie, throwing his arm over the back of the couch. Crutchie grins at him, bright like the sun, and Albert wonders if the expression is reflected on his own face when he looks at Race.

The boy in question snags Albert’s wrist and yanks him into a spin. “Dance with me, Al!” he shouts over the general chaos, and pulls him close to his chest. His head is thrown back, eyes half closed, and he holds Albert’s hand out to the side, cigar between his lips. The other arm he wraps around Al’s waist and he promenades them in a wide circle. The newsies clear some space, hooting at them.

Race is making a spectacle to make others laugh again. Albert’s more than happy to oblige.

It doesn’t take but a few seconds for Romeo to turn to Katherine with an elaborate bow and say, “M’lady.” She laughs, but takes his hand anyway, and they join in the circle. The dance spreads—Jojo is dancing with his sister; Specs has a giggling girl no older than seven in his arms; Sniper and Smalls are dancing with each other; Buttons is blushing as Elmer carefully shows her where to place her hands; and Henry dances with a broom. Some of their friends are too cool for the dancing, like Spot, standing cross-armed against the wall, and Finch, who stands on the stairwell with one foot on a higher step than the other.

Race lets go of Albert and makes a beeline to pester Spot, and Al’s breath catches and his heart aches a little bit. He tries to keep watching, but the room is crowded, and Albert is not the tallest. As he watches, Jack steps in where Romeo was to dance with Katherine. Romeo tries to flirt up Josephine, much to Jojo’s amusement and embarrassment. She, however, agrees to dance with Rafaela, one of Brooklyn’s girls.

Les tugs on Albert’s sleeve. “I wanna ask Katherine to dance.”

“Well, go do it!” Albert gives him a little push to the shoulder, prepared to watch the fun.

Les lifts his chin, straightens his shoulders, and marches right up to Katherine and Jack. Neither of them look particularly bothered; in fact, they both look right amused. Katherine starts to teach him the basic steps of some high falutin’ dance she knows, and Jack in the meantime, turns and asks Davey to dance. Davey stutters and flushes, but the boys around him tease him until he relents.

Albert looks at their assembled crew, realizing it doesn’t matter who anyone is dancing with. He and Race could have danced all night and no one would have minded. But Race apparently only wanted to dance with him to entertain everyone. To make a spectacle. And while Albert would do anything Race asks of him, he wishes it wasn’t just for show.

And suddenly Race is at his shoulder, tapping him and jerking his head toward the door. Albert follows him, just as he always will.

No one notices as they slip into the night, out of the loud and into the muffled calm. Race strolls down the street a bit, leisurely lighting his cigar like he’s a wealthy businessman.

Albert rolls his eyes. “Buy a pape, sir! Fantastic headline! Buncha kids won a war against a tyrant!”

Race turns on his heel to come back to Albert. “Fantastic headline, you’s say?”

“You won’t believe it until you read it.”

“Well, maybe I’d better take a closer look.” He sidles up to Albert, twirling the cigar between his fingers.

It means nothing, because it’s Race, and Race flirts with everyone, so Albert is no one special. He looks down and swallows. When he speaks, his voice is hoarser than he’d like. “What’d you want with Spot Conlon?”

“Eh, just wanted to ask if we’s on for poker.”

“And are you?” He’s not jealous, he’s not jealous.

“Ah course! Wouldn’t miss it f’r anything.”

“Hm.” Al swallows again, feeling a lump, hot and dry, in his throat. While he goes home to his father and brothers, Race goes over to fucking Brooklyn and Spot fucking Conlon and is probably fucking Spot Conlon.

“Hey.” Race punches his shoulder gently. “Whatcha got to be glum about?” He lifts Albert’s chin gently, with a crooked finger. “Albert?”

Al nods, smiling. “Nothing. Nothing, I’m fine.”

Race frowns for a second, but doesn’t push. Instead, he says, “Let’s celebrate! We won!” He flashes a brilliant grin, and tosses back his head and lets out a war whoop.

Albert grins right back, ever the mirror, ever the moon reflecting Race’s sun. And then, impulsively, he throws his arms around Race and hugs him, chest to chest, pressing his hands into Race’s back. If he is surprised, Race doesn’t let on, and instead he squeezes so tightly Al can’t quite breathe. And they stay like that, holding on tight.

They took on the world, this group of children, Albert and Race among them. Now, some would say they’re on top of the world. But right now, with Race in his arms, Albert would say he’s holding the world.

*

The first time Albert goes home after the strike does not go well. He’d slept on the streets a couple times, on piles of hay and on park benches and under bushes. But, eventually, the time comes when he has to go home, so he trudges back to their apartment with shaking knees. If all goes well, his father will either be gone or asleep. Sober would be nice, too, but that seems few and far between anymore, and neither version is pleasant.

His father isn’t home, but Brendan and Cormac are. The house still feels empty without Eilish, but Albert ignores that for no, just like he ignored how he felt about his mother’s death.

If you ignore it, it’s not there. If only that were true of his feelings for Race.

“Albert!” Brendan stands, his bruises faded and his ankle unbandaged. “Heard about your strike!” He pulls Albert into a hug, rubbing his knuckles through his hair good-naturedly.

“Yeah, yeah. Wasn’t nothin’.” Albert wrestles out of the headlock.

“Proud of you!” His trolley-worker brother is practically beaming.

Albert shrugs it off. “There anything to eat?”

“So hungry!” Brendan teases.

He crosses his arms over his chest defensively. “I’m a growing boy.”

Cormac looks up from the stove. “Jus’ soup. Be sure and save some for Da.” He pulls out three bowls, each with different chips and cracks.

Albert takes his first bite and spits it back out immediately. “Hot.”

Brendan laughs and Cormac chuckles. “So impatient.”

Albert huffs.

“What’s this?” Cormac slaps at the mostly healed cut on Albert’s arm.

“’s from the strike.”

“You get the guy that did it?”

“They sent bulls after us.” The admission is reluctant.

“And you actually fought them? You let them get close enough to do that?” Cormac’s words are harsh and firm, no joking tone.

Albert spins his spoon between his fingers and clenches his jaw.

“Cormac,” Brendan warns.

“I just don’t want any brother of mine being so idiotic. At least tell me you didn’t cry over it.”

Albert shakes his head.

“Good. Be manly.” He punctuates this with a heavy hand on Al’s shoulder, before dumping his empty bowl in the sink. “Going to work.”

When he’s gone, Brendan says, “You know he means well.”

“Yeah. At least that.”

“It’s his way of showing he cares.”

Albert nods again. He doesn’t agree. Showing you care is different, and it doesn’t cause more hurt. Showing you care is softer, not heavy and sharp. Showing you care is being there and listening well and making someone smile when they feel down.

Showing you care is the way Race says, Albert, and lifts his chin with a crooked finger.

Albert jerks up from the table. “Going to bed.”

If his brothers or father found out what he’d been thinking or his feelings for Race—

He almost makes it clear to bed before his father gets home. Almost. What a bitter word.

The door bangs open, and moment his father lays eyes on him, his expression sours. “Where have you been?”

“Did you read the papers? There was a strike.”

“You mean you stopped working?”

“Not for long!”

“Doesn’t matter! You’re lazy!”

“Da—” Brendan starts, but their father cuts him off.

“You don’t have a say in this. You’re still laying around here like a mooch you are.” He turns back to Albert. “And you. Let me see your money, if you have any.”

Albert surrenders what he has—it’s not much, but Pulitzer’s buy-back program is helpful.

His father counts it quickly, coins clinking. “Good.” He closes his fingers over the coins.

“Wait, that’s all I’s got, I need some f’r tomorrow’s papes!”

The slap is sudden and quick—one moment his father has his back to him, the next Albert is seeing spots and cradling a stinging cheek.

“Insolence will not be tolerated.” The words are soft, almost with a comforting tone. His father gently turns his face. “No tears. Good boy.” He walks back out the door, jingling coins in his hand.

Brendan rushes over. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry—”

“Ain’t your fault.”

“If I had the money to give you, I would, I’m so sorry—”

“I said it wasn’t your fault!” His outburst causes Brendan to retreat. “Sorry, Brendan, I didn’t mean to yell. I’m going to bed.”

He curls onto his pallet, and only then do the tears fall, silent and swift. He evens his breathing before Brendan comes to bed, because even Brendan believes that strong men don’t cry.

And really, the worst part of it is that his money is gone, and that’s no reason to cry.

He’ll just have to get creative with Weasel in the morning.

*

Without a doubt, August is Albert’s least favorite month. It’s hot, oppressively so, like standing next to an open fire. The whole city stinks, reeks of sweat and sewer in the sun. Sweat runs down his ribs and back, tickling and soaking through his shirt and vest. He’s already been sunburned, angry red and peeling, all across the back of his neck and arms. Just the other day, Buttons and Specs had forced him to sit in the common room with soaking cold towels draped over his arms and neck.

He must be a sight, trying to sell papes while freckled and red. He’s not getting pity papes; rather, people seem to want to avoid him.

He droops in the sun, head pounding. He’d kill for a glass of seltzer. Or even water. Or a chance to sit down.

Fuck it. He sits down, right there on the pavement, elbows on knees and head between shoulders. A drop of sweat rolls off his nose and onto the pavement, a round mark that fades quickly in the sun.

His vision is cloudy, narrowing to that fading sweat drop. He could go to sleep right here.

Wait. Papes. Gotta sell papes. Lifting his head takes enormous effort, and the world spins around him. What time of day is it anyway? How soon can he go lie down indoors somewhere?

Even indoors is hot.

Everything is hot.

“Al?” Distantly, someone calls his name. “Albert?”

There are hands on his burning shoulders, stinging where they touch, and he grunts and pulls away. Through the fog, a face peers down at him. “Crutchie?”

The boy says something but Albert doesn’t hear. All he wants to do is lay down and sleep for approximately a hundred years.

“Albert DaSilva, you’s not gonna die on me.” Crutchie yanks on his arm and forces him to stand. They stumble across the street together, and Crutchie deposits Albert under an awning. “Be right back. Don’t go anywhere.”

Albert can’t make his mouth move to say he doesn’t have anywhere to go, so he leans his head against the wall and thinks about going to live inside a watermelon.

The next thing he hears is Jack snapping at him. “You’s an idiot, you know that? You wanna die from sun stroke? Huh? Drink some water.” Jack thrusts a sweating glass into his hands and Albert stares at it, dumbfounded, before downing it. The flat water feels slimy in his mouth. He doesn’t like the texture, but he drinks it anyway. “I’ve had to send Specs clear to Brooklyn because of your sorry ass. C’mon, let’s go. You’s gotta see the doc.”

Albert grunts again as Jack tries to lift him to standing, but his knees and legs don’t want to obey. Jack sighs, mutters a curse, and then adjusts until Albert is hanging off his neck. “You’s gonna help me, or what?” Then Albert manages to get a grip and help Jack lift him to a piggyback. The last thing Albert remembers is Crutchie removing his sweaty hat.

When he wakes up, he’s quite cold. He’s mostly naked, laying flat on a rope hammock, suspended in cold water. He groans, drawing the attention of a white-clad nurse.

“How are you feeling?”

“Thirsty,” he croaks.

She supplies him with water (flat, of course, he needs to get used to that), and tells him that once his internal body temperature has been sufficiently lowered, she’ll take him to the “breezy roof.” Albert doesn’t totally know what all this means—it sounds a lot like big words Davey would understand—but he’s content to be still and cold for a while. When he goes up on the roof (in only his underclothes, which is not as embarrassing as it should be), he sits under an umbrella while the summer breeze dries him.

When it’s time for him to go, Race is waiting outside for him, twisting his hat in his hands. As soon as he sees Albert, relief washes over his face, and he snaps, “Ya had to get sick when my best horse was racin’ didn’t ya.” He yanks on his hat.

“Sorry! If it weren’t so bloomin’ hot—”

“If you drank water and wore sleeves—”

“I don’t like how those feel—”

“Stop bein’ damn stubborn!”

“For Christ’s sake, I ain’t dead!”

Race yanks him into a hug, squeezing tightly. “No. No, you ain’t dead.” He lets him go, runs a hand over Albert’s burnt shoulder. “You was pretty damn close from what Jack tells me.”

Albert scuffs his bare foot on the ground. “I was just too hot.”

“Drink some water, dammit. You’s as red as a fire engine.”

“Don’t like water.”

“I know.” Race throws an arm over his shoulders. “Let’s forget about it, yeah? Just stay safe for me.” He ghosts his lips over Al’s temple and ear, and presses his hat to his stomach.

Albert takes the hat, pulling it on backwards. Unless he was mistaken, Race just kissed him. Race kissed him. His brain fizzles to a stop, staring at his bare feet and Race’s shoes.

Race doesn’t miss that something is awry, so he flashes a grin and says, “Dinner? I’ll race you!” Race takes off like a shot, and Albert hesitates only a moment before leaping to follow.

At the lodging house, Albert has a big glass of water with his food. Race sits beside him and pushes it closer to him with little taps from time to time, just to make sure he drinks it all.

Damn you, Race, for caring. There is no way to fall out of love with someone who loves you so much.

They share a cigar on the fire escape before going to sleep that night—Albert at home and Race presumably somewhere outdoors.

Albert watches Race’s fingers around the cigar, the smoke spilling from his lips, the jut of his bouncing knee. He catalogues each frame, filing it somewhere quiet and private in his mind. He may never have Race, but at least he’ll have this.