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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.

Chapter Text

In the fall, Albert makes himself a promise: He will not do anything to endanger his friendship with Race, and that includes confessing his feelings. Race, while attracted to men, is not attracted to Albert. If he tells Race, he’d probably want to stop talking to him. At best, he’ll feel awkward and put space between them, and it would hurt. At worst, he’d slowly drift away without saying anything; wait in the selling line with someone else, share his cigars with someone else, take someone else to the fire escape, and erase Albert, one by one by one.

That would hurt too much. So Albert promises.

This is a truth he carries through every day. Every single day he sees Race, and he has to refrain. It’s no longer suffocating, but it still aches. His heart sits heavy in his thin chest, and he prays that Race will always want his friendship, because that would be enough. It must be enough, Albert needs it to be enough, and like the beggar that he is, he sustains himself on crumbs of moments, nourishes himself with fragments of affection that are not meant the way he wants them.

The air gets colder and the leaves start to change. People start to wear scarves or gloves; a few don jackets. Jacobi starts selling hot soup with lunches. The street vendors add hot coffee to their menus. A few younger newsboys start talking about carving jack-o-lanterns, when the time is right.

And Albert goes to visit Eilish.

Her birthday is early October, and Albert would have no excuse for missing it. He sells a daily paper, for chrissake, he always knows the date. He goes after selling the evening pape, promising Jojo he’d catch up with him later. They’d sold together that day, close to the Bowery on Book Row. Jojo loves to read, and no one says you have to buy a book in order to open it. They take Checker, one of the littles, with them, and keep him supplied with papes and protected from cops. They split the profit by thirds, and go their separate ways.

Albert doesn’t have a gift for Eilish, but hopefully, his good wishes will be enough.

He knocks on the stage door, hoping someone nice opens it. Sometimes the stage managers were a little grumpy. No one answers, so he tries the knob and lets himself in. Backstage is dark, ropes, sandbags, and wheeled backdrops making up the landscape. A staircase leads to the dressing rooms, and he starts toward it before a stage manager catches him.

“Hey! What’re you doing here!” The man grabs his upper arm. “If you want to watch the show, you need to go out front. And pay.”

“Sorry, I though this was a free country.”

“This show isn’t free, son. Box office is out front.” He pulls Albert toward the door.

“Wait! I’m here to see Eilish. I’m her brother.”

The man peers at him through his glasses, pinching his lips until his mustache completely covers them. “Don’t look much like her.” But his grip on his arm relaxes.

A woman calls from upstairs, “Bunsen? Who’s that?”

“Say’s he’s here to see Eilish. Says he’s her brother.”

The girl smiles, red lipstick outlining white teeth. “Let him come up. If Eilish trusts him, he’s a good egg.”

Bunsen lets him go, albeit reluctantly, and Albert heads upstairs, nodding his thanks to the sequined and feathered showgirl.

He knocks on the dressing room door before opening it. Bright lights blind him the moment he steps in. There’s a number of girls there, in various states of dress and undress. Some are fully clothed, lounging on the loveseat in comfortable day dresses, playing cards. Others are halfway into costume, perhaps with a pink wig in place or a face full of makeup but still dressed normally. And still others are fully bejeweled and silked, turning into turquoise, purple, and pink creatures. Albert respectfully focuses on his scuffed shoes. It’s gotten chilly enough he’s wearing them again.

“Eilish!” he shouts over the giggling din, and the room silences.

“Who might you be?” a girl asks, her fake eyelashes a startling purple.

“Her brother. Albert.”

Albert?” Eilish’s voice shouts from around a corner, and she appears, blessedly dressed, but her hair is piled on top of her head and graced with a peacock feather. They wrap each other in a tight embrace, spinning a circle as they both laugh.

“Happy Birthday!”

“It’s your birthday?” one of the other girls crows. “Why didn’t you say something?”

Eilish flushes. “Didn’t want to cause a fuss.”

The girls tut and protest, and Eilish sighs.

“Let’s go somewhere quieter,” she says, and tugs him out the door.

She leads him back downstairs and around the set and knocks on a door with “Miss Medda” painted on the front in gold script.

“Did Jack paint that?”

“Who?”

“Jack Kelly, he’s a friend of mine. Paints for Miss Medda sometimes.”

“Oh, the backgrounds boy. Yes, I think he did.”

Miss Medda opens the door, looking resplendent in a brilliant gown of sapphire blue, a long pearl necklace reaching to her waist. “Hello, Eilish, what can I do for you? Who’s your friend?”

“Miss Medda, this is my brother, Albert. We were just wanting to talk in private for a bit.”

“Oh, of course! Here, use my office.” She opens the door wider and steps aside so they can enter. “If you like, you can take the night off. Spend some time with your family. Rachel or Maggie can take your spot.”

Eilish deliberates for a moment. “If it’s alright, I think I’d like to go on and let him see the show.”

“That’s just fine, honey, you let me know.” Medda steps out and closes the door.

Eilish heads directly to the side table, where a pot of tea is steeping. “It’s still warm, if you want some.”

Albert nods, and she pours them two cups.

Eilish has always been his favorite sibling. Where Brendan is big and loud and Cormac is stony and rude, Eilish is tranquil and soft-spoken, ready with a smile and a kind word. Her hair is dark, unlike the DaSilva men, but she bears the same spatter of freckles across her nose and cheekbones. When they were smaller, they would play together a lot, and she can shoot a marble just as well as he can. After she ran away, she dropped off the face of the earth for a while, and then resurfaced as a laundry girl, staying at the girl’s lodging house. When she got a little older, she ended up at Medda’s theatre, and Albert drops in to visit her from time to time. He guesses Brendan and Cormac do too, but he doubts they’d be as well behaved backstage as they should be.

She takes a seat on the cushy armchair, crossing her legs at the ankles, looking for all the world like the regal and well-bred lady she deserves to be. When she motions to the loveseat, Albert takes a seat, and she hands him his tea.

“Tell me everything. How are you?”

So Albert tells her—about the strike (“I remember, we had to clear out of the theater early that night.”), about the newsies (“One of your friends does mending for us—she goes by Buttons, I think.”), and about their father (“I’m sorry, Albie, but I’m not sorry I left.”).

“What about you? How’s the best birthday girl?”

Eilish smiles. “I love dancing, Albie. And I love the singing. And the girls—they’re so sweet. They take good care of me. I’m living with two of them now, we have an apartment. I moved out of the boarding house last month.” She takes a sip of tea. “I think the landlady was glad to see me go, didn’t think my line of work is very respectable.”

Albert shrugs. “Look, whatever makes you money, makes you money, and as long as you’s happy, I don’t care what you’s doin’.”

“I am happy.”

“Good. You didn’t used to be.”

She sighs. “I know. But things are better now.”

“Are there any fellas hangin’ round?”

She flushes, a telltale grin spreading. “Yes,” she whispers.

“Oh? What, pray tell, is his name?”

“His name is Henry, and he’s a clerk at a dry goods store. He’s been coming around since the start of the summer.”

“That long? Don’t surprise me, you’s a very charmin’ girl!”

“We’re just—taking things slow. But I like him, Albie, I really do.” She looks at him with a strong earnestness. “I think I’m gonna tell him my real name soon.”

“Real name?”

“We all go by stage names for safety’s sake. When you really trust a person, then you tell them your name.”

“What’s your stage name?”

“Emerald. Because I’m from the emerald isle.”

“Clever.”

Eilish checks the time, and makes a small exclamation. “I’d better get going! It’s later than I thought. There should be an empty seat in the audience, but if not, you can watch from backstage. I’ll se you after!” She hurries away.

Albert, left alone in a place he did not belong, left the empty teacups on the side table and found his way into the auditorium. He took a seat in the back, letting parties more interested in a good view take the close seats.

The show is entertaining, bright and colorful, and Jack’s backgrounds are undeniably beautiful. Medda sings a couple sassy and hilarious songs, and Eilish appears in three group numbers, and one where she sings a few solo lines.

Albert can’t shake the weirdness of it.

It’s weird to see his sister up there, dancing like that. It’s weird to watch something meant to be exciting and only be entertained by the showmanship of it. And it’s really weird to discover he’s not turned on by any of it.

Girls are pretty, he guesses, and if he got to know one really well, he might even want to kiss her. But he simply can’t fathom why someone would get all hot and bothered over someone they’ve never even spoken to. He just doesn’t get it.

He might understand if the girl was blond. And had clear, brilliant, blue eyes, a jawline sharper than wit, and smelled of cigar smoke. And was a boy. Named Racetrack Higgins.

Albert sighs. All roads lead there, eventually. Always, continually, to Racetrack Higgins.

After the show, he gives Eilish a goodbye kiss on the cheek and leaves into the night.

He’s glad she’s happy, and safe, and loved. He wishes he could say the same of himself.

*

“Lunch?” Race asks, looking over his leftover morning papers. “Hotdog?”

“Dunno if I’ve made enough,” Albert mumbles. “For lunch an’ tomorrow,” he elaborates.

Race motions for him to hand over the papers, and counts them rapidly. “With the buy back you should be fine. After all, what’s better than a three cent lunch?”

Albert shrugs. “A two cent lunch. A one cent lunch. A free lunch!”

“Alright, wise guy. Let’s get some grub.”

They head for a selling cart, each buying a hot dog and claiming a seat on the curb to chow down. Race had stayed in Manhattan that day, which he did most of the time. Travelling to the sheepshead took a long time, even if he managed to hitchhike on every trolley without getting caught. He usually went twice a week, extra if there was a big race or his favorite horse was racing. He’d spend the whole day there, clear through evening papes, trading betting tips for a pape and making up the difference with his winnings. He spent some evenings there, too, gambling and presumably getting busy with Spot Conlon. Albert didn’t think about that too much.

Sometimes, he’ll offer to take another newsie with him to sheepshead. Albert’s been invited a few times, but he finds the noise and pressure of the crowd overwhelming. Romeo has enjoyed it, as had Jack, the few times he’d gone, but then he sold to one of Race’s regulars, and Race found that a deep betrayal. (They were younger then, and things like that felt bigger than they were. The strike changed a few things; namely, the perception of what is important.)

But when he didn’t go to Brooklyn, he perused lower Manhatten, usually partnering with a young newsie. But today he had chosen Albert as his selling partner, and they’d taken Albert’s usual route down Bottle Alley and around the banks nearby. Satisfaction blossomed in Albert’s chest, that Race had chosen him today. And yes, Race is Albert’s best friend, but it’s still not often that they got a chance to just be near each other like this. Just to share the same space and air and patch of concrete.

Race finishes his hotdog with a satisfied sigh and leans back on his palms to watch passersby. Albert had finished his moments before, being the less patient and apparently more hungry. Race glances at him, then at the grocers across the street.

“You want an apple?”

“Yes,” Albert answers without thinking. “Wait. How much d’they cost?”

Race shrugs, grinning sloppily. “Don’t matter.”

“Wait, no, you could get caught—”

But Race is already gone, sauntering across the street and sizing up the grocers. Albert scrambles to his feet, scanning for bulls. None are in eyeshot, and when he looks back to Race, the boy has snatched two apples and is casually strolling away. He grins at Albert and motions him over with a nod of his head.

Albert jogs over to him, a few doors down. Race grins and tosses him a bright red apple, firm and russet and so very perfect.

Albert bites down on a fruit he hasn’t tasted in far too long, sweet and crunchy, the juice running over his lip and down his chin. Gracelessly, he swipes at the juice with his wrist, running his tongue over the skin to lap up the taste.

Race watches him hungrily, taking more enjoyment out of watching Albert than eating his own apple. He raises his brows. “Good?”

“The best.”

Unfortunately, they’ve lingered too long, and the grocer spots them. “Hey! C’mere! You better pay for those!”

Race sparks a daring smile before saying, “Run!” and taking off down the walk. Albert darts after him, dodging startled men and affronted women. A quick glance over his shoulder reveals the grocer has sent a bull after them.

“Race!” he shouts.

Thrilled, Race speeds up, his long legs pumping, and Albert catches a peal of his effervescent laughter.

Albert has shorter legs, but thicker muscles, and he pushes after. They lead the cop on a short but merry chase, ducking in between carriages, leaping over a begging dog, across an intersection, and finally darting into an alley. Albert almost misses it, but Race grabs his unbuttoned vest and yanks, sending him careening into the brick wall. Race lands on Albert’s chest, both of them panting and electrified. Albert can feel Race’s heart pounding against his chest, drumming a rhythm with his own. For a moment, their hearts sync and breath mingles between them.

“Shhh,” Race whispers and presses a single finger to Albert’s lips, playful. Albert laughs in a whisper, trembling.

“I think we lost them,” Albert breathes.

Race exhales against Albert’s chin, and Albert watches the gentle swell of his lips rise and fall with his breathing.

“Yeah,” he whispers, making no move to get off Albert’s chest. Their eyes meet and linger just a moment too long. Albert’s heart thuds in his ears—one-two, one-two, one-two.

Race shoves off him, slaps his bicep and sticks out his tongue with a grin. He straightens his hat and pulls his apple out of his pocket. “Well earned,” he says, before taking a large bite.

Together, they walk out of the alley, relishing their trophies. Albert bumps his shoulder into Race’s and Race returns the gesture. For a moment, they are kings of New York, having won a war and a contest and a game all rolled into one.

*

The lodging house is extra loud tonight; the Jacobs siblings and Katherine are there, which is such a welcome addition to their family. Most of them are scattered across the common room—Les is winning a game of marbles with the other littles, though Smalls is giving him a run for his money. She lines up her shot with one eye closed, on her knees.

Sniper, who wears pants like a boy but is definitely a girl, spins her slingshot in her fingers as Josephine attempts to make conversation with her. Sniper doesn’t seem interested, and is far busier watching Smalls. They’re both about twelve, and Albert has never seen them apart.

Mike and Ike are repeatedly sliding down the bannister, and racing each other to the top of the stairs again. Jojo has a Horatio Alger novel and is cross-legged in the corner, oblivious to the chaos around him.

Crutchie, Davey, and Jack are hogging the couch, comfortable and smiling. Crutchie laughs loudly at something Jack says, and elbows Davey in the ribs. Katherine and Sarah Jacobs are having a separate conversation nearby; Albert catches the phrases “suffrage” and “rights.”

Race is nowhere to be found. He’d been selling at the Sheepshead that day, but if he was anywhere in the building, it’d be in the dining room.

Elmer is acting dealer for the poker game, where Specs, Finch, Henry, and Romeo are playing. Buttons is not playing, but is sitting beside Elmer, watching him keep score with rapt attention.

Albert takes a seat by Finch, across from Romeo. “Is it too late to deal me in?”

Elmer shakes his head and rapidly flicks cards to all of them. Albert will start a little behind, but he gathers his betting pieces and stares at his cards attempting to mentally calculate. Albert places his bets and loses, per the norm. He’s tries to remain unbothered, but irritation at his incompetence rises regardless.

The next round, Finch glances at him and when Albert places his bet, coughs discreetly. When Elmer turns over a card, Finch clears his throat quietly, and Albert raises his bet, though confused. After the last card is turned, Finch folds, and Albert takes the round, raking in the peanuts (and peanut shells) with glee.

He sneaks a peek at Finch, who is smiling behind a hand.

Hm.

The third round, his cards are terrible and he folds immediately. The round after that, Finch does his little coughing thing again, but Albert doesn’t listen to his signals and loses badly. And at any rate, Henry is going to clear them all out soon anyway, but Albert is pretty sure he’s bluffing. No one can have good cards that many times in a row.

Their game ends abruptly when Mush bursts in. “Romeo! Romeo, wherefore art thou?”

“In here!”

Mush skids into the dining room. “I took her on a date, Romeo, and it was amazing! She’s beautiful and sweet and we had a great time!”

“Whoa, who’s she?” Albert says, seconded by the rest of the table.

Mush settles in a chair and tells them the whole story of the girl he’d met at Hook park, and how he’d taken her on a date and it had been fabulous.

“Didja kiss her?” Romeo wants to know.

Mush flushes so much it’s visible even on his dark skin. “Yes.”

The boys hoot and holler, Romeo slapping Mush on the back repeatedly. It’s enough ruckus to draw Jack and Kloppman into the room. Jack, once he understands what’s happening, whoops at Mush and ruffles his curly hair.

Kloppman shoos his hands at them. “Alright, alright, it’s curfew, so either go home or pay for your bed.”

The crowd disperses, the girls heading to their house and those with families headed home. Elmer and Buttons leave together, and a few of the littles head to their homes, too. The rest line up to pay for a night’s lodging.

Jack asks, “Mind if I walk the Jacobs and Miss Plumber home?” Kloppman dismisses him with a wave of his hand, and they head out together, Les rubbing sleepy eyes.

Crutchie hobbles from the couch to the stairs.

“You going up?” Albert asks.

Crutchie nods. “Still not cold enough to bother us. Me ‘n Jack’s tough.”

Albert nods, agreeing. He follows Crutchie upstairs and out the window, stopping on the fire escape. “You gonna be okay?”

Crutchie raises his chin. “Sure. I’m not having any problems.”

“I’m staying out for a smoke. Just ignore me.” He settles himself on the fire escape, pulling off his hat and subtly watching Crutchie’s ascent. Protecting Crutchie is a delicate job—too much and he’ll be offended, too little, and he’s likely to get hurt. He doesn’t have a smoke on him, anyway. He only bums off Race, and Race isn’t here.

Finch coughs, startling Albert. “Hey.”

“What do you want?” Albert asks, confused.

“Keep ya shirt on, there’s no need to get offended.”

“Hmph.”

“You’s close to winning the poker game.”

“Naw I wasn’t. You stay out of it.”

“I’s helping you!”

“I don’t need your help!”

“Look, Red.”

Albert runs a hand over his hair self-consciously.

“I don’t mean to offend, I thought you’d like to win.”

“Why’d you go lookin’ at my cards anyhow?”

“Who says I’s looking?”

“I says! How else you’d know?”

Finch shrugs. “Been playing to win for ages.”

Albert humphs again and turns away. “Don’ need no help.”

“Whatever you say, Red. This is you’s and Race’s territory, so I’ll leave you alone now.”

Without turning, Albert knows he left. Why on earth Finch would want to help him is beyond him. It went disastrously anyway, not that Albert will admit that it was because he didn’t listen. Finch is not the sort to just offer help with no reason. He’s funny about things like that—strict in his beliefs about belongings and territory and brotherhood.

Race drops down beside him, already holding a cigar. “Hey, Al!”

Albert cannot stop the grin that splits his face at the sight of Race. “Where ya been?”

“Over the bridge. Shootin’ the shit with Conlon. You know how it is.”

No, Albert doesn’t know and he doesn’t want to know.

“What did Finch want? Saw him on the landing.”

“Oh, he was trying to give me poker tips.”

“Oh. Anything helpful?”

“No,” Albert lies. And anyway, Race doesn’t need to know that the only round he won was the one Finch signaled at him. “You missed curfew.”

Race shrugs. “Kloppman knows by now. I pay ‘im weekly, I’s been here so long.” He hands his cigar to Albert.

Al takes it, savoring the rich smoky flavor.

From the roof, the sounds of Jack’s and Crutchie’s laughter float down, distant and warm. Jack must’ve climbed up the ladder on the other side of the building.

Al shivers in the breeze, and scoots closer to Race.

“Thought I saw Snyder today,” he says, quiet and brittle.

Al hums at him to continue.

“It wasn’t him, but. Gave me a helluva scare. Bout started runnin’ right there, right at sheepshead.” He snorts, shakes his head. “Spot saw the whole thing.”

“Sorry that happened.”

“Eh. It’s the ruffian life,” Race takes back the cigar and takes a few puffs. “And anyway, this guy looked like he smelled a lot better than Snyder. Snyder always smelled like he’d taken a roll in the garbage can.”

Al laughs, not because he knows it’s true, but because Race wants him to. Race wants him to laugh and ease the ache, and Al will do everything in his power to make it so.

When he eventually leaves, making sure Race climbs safely back through the window before climbing down the fire escape, it is very late, and far too cold to brave it outdoors. He prays to God his father is asleep by the time he gets home.

He is not so lucky.

Albert turns the doorknob slowly, willing it not to creak or squeak. He makes it inside and closes the door equally carefully. When it closes with only the faintest click, he breathes out, and tiptoes into the house toward his room.

The light clicks on in the kitchen. His father stands from the kitchen table, crossing his arms over his chest. “Where have you been?”

“At the lodging house. With Race.” He pushes himself back closer to the wall.

“Well, pay up, boy, don’t keep me waiting.”

Albert digs into his pocket and pulls out his handful of coins, which he sets on the table.

“All of them.”

He reluctantly surrenders his last quarter, which he’d hoped to save for his own use.

His father counts through the coins quickly, sliding them into his palm. “Take tomorrow’s papes.”

Albert reaches to his father’s hand and takes three dimes.

His father grunts, and closes his fist around the coins. “Do you want to tell me the real reason you’re so late?”

Seeing trouble looming on the horizon, Albert backs up two steps. Two steps closer to his room. Two steps closer to freedom. “I told you, I was with Race.”

His father looms closer, tall and broad and angry. “You’d best not be lying to me, boy. If I hear that you were out wasting time—”

“It’s true, I swear it!” He takes another step away. Only four more steps now, if he hurries and times it right.

“Don’t talk back to me, boy!”

Shit.

He’s able to duck the first blow, but the second comes from the fist full of coins, heavy onto his cheek. He drops to his knees, even though it wasn’t hard enough to truly deck him, in hopes of deterring another blow.

Instead, his father kicks at him, swiping his ribs with his workboot.

Albert gasps, clutching at the spot. He braces for the next blow, closing his eyes.

“Get up.”

Albert pulls closer into himself, still not yet able to breathe quite right.

“I said, get up, boy!”

He scrambles to his feet, wincing and grunting at the pain. He can feel his jaw swelling.

“Now look me in the eyes.”

Albert meets his eyes, hoping the rage and fire burns holes in his father’s head.

He grabs his chin and pulls Al’s face close, peering into his eyes. “Glad to see you’re not crying like a wimp. My sons will grow up to be strong.”

The stench of whiskey wafts over Albert so strongly he almost gags.

His father releases him. “Get to bed now. And no more coming back late.”

Albert shuffles to the room he shares with Brendan and Cormac. Cormac is gone, working his night shift, and Brendan is already asleep, so he undresses as quietly as possible. Just as he slips under the covers, Brendan wakes across the room. He sleeps in the top bunk, Cormac beneath, and Albert on a pallet on the floor.

“Did he hit you?” he whispers.

Albert nods, not wanting to talk about it.

Brendan climbs down and peers into the hall. He slips out, and a moment later, returns with a cold damp rag. “It’s the best I can do.” He presses it to Albert’s jaw, mumbling soothing nonsense like when they were kids. “There, s’gonna be ok. You’re a tough boy. You’re gonna be fine.”

Albert takes the rag from him and rubs at his ribcage. “Thanks, Brendan.”

“You know, I’ve been saving some money. Hiding it. I’m about set to get out of here. Gonna go get me an apartment or a room at a boarding house. Gonna be swell. And when I go—you can come with me. Can keep selling the papes, I know you got friends. But it’ll get us out of here.”

Albert nods to placate him and get him to shut up and go back to bed. He remembers Jack swearing he’ll go West someday, how Crutchie had told Albert that Jack promised he could go to. It’s nothing but moonlight dreams, all of it. But then again, Brendan has always been his favorite brother, and maybe things will work out for them.

It didn’t used to be this way. Once upon a time, Albert had a mother. He remembers her vaguely—an impression of soft hands and a nice smell and long hair. They’d lived in a bigger house, then, and eaten things Albert only dreams of—lamb and venison and chocolate and fresh oranges. He went to school then, learned how to read.

That was when he met Race. Only he wasn’t called Race, then, he was called Antonio. Antonio no-last-name, because he had no parents or folks and couldn’t remember. But he’d been outside the schoolyard one day when Albert was having lunch, and Al had shared his dinner roll with the hungry boy, and Race hadn’t left his side since.

They played marbles and jacks and jump rope, and Antonio came to dinner quite often. His mother had liked Antonio, he remembers. They played soldiers with sticks and played pranks on Brendan and Cormac and Eilish.

That fall, Mr. Higgins next door died, and Albert and Antonio had watched as the casket was carried out.

“Higgins,” Antony had mumbled. “My name’s gonna be Higgins.”

“What?”

“Antonio Higgins, please to meetcha.” He stuck out a grubby hand.

Albert shook it, confused, “Albert DaSilva, I already know you.”

Antonio had giggled and tackled Albert into friendly roughhousing.

Albert’s ma died when he was seven, not long after he’d met Antonio. He was young enough that it only hurt him some, and he wasn’t as upset then as he would be later, when he was older and could better understand what he lost. Then he hurt so much he thought it would never end, and he’d forever be trapped with this ache.

After, things had started changing. It didn’t change all at once, and he was too young to understand, but something went wrong with money and they had to sell the house and move into an apartment. First, they moved, then Brendan and Cormac had to drop out of school and get jobs, then Eilish ran away, and finally Albert had to quit school and get a job, too. And while all this was happening, his father started drinking more and more.

Race was with him through all of this, and when Al had to quit school, he convinced him to become a newsie with him. Race had been a newsie for a long time by now, long enough to be named Race. Even Albert didn’t call him Antonio any more.

And Al and Race carried on like that—best friends, side by side, partners in crime.

Of course Al had to go and ruin it all by falling in love.

Two days after Brendan confessed his plan, their father found Brendan’s stash, and took it all to buy alcohol and pay rent, in that order. Brendan refuses to cry, but Albert can see it’s killing him to hold it all in.

It didn’t used to be this way, but this is the way it is now. And that’s all there is to it.

*

On Halloween, the newsies all shout headlines about ghosts and spooks and bloody hauntings, and people seem content to buy it. They don’t have a party or anything, but Jack promises to tell stories of Dia de Muertos. The newsies all gather around him, littles nearest to the front, spreading across the common room. Davey sits by his chair, hands twisted together in front of him. Sarah and Katherine hadn’t come tonight, but Davey had said they were together.

On the couch, Les is pressed into Crutchie’s side. They sell together sometimes after Les gets out of school, on account of how Crutchie is Jack’s little brother the way Les is Davey’s. Next to them are Jojo and Josephine, who, though Catholic nuns raised them, know that Dia de Muertos is part of their heritage. Mike and Ike are sprawled on the floor, and Sniper is looking extra tough as Smalls tries to sneak behind her at the prospect of ghost stories. If pressed, she’ll vehemently deny being scared, and then sock you for even suggesting it.

Mush and Romeo are sitting on the floor, leaning on the wall, and Albert joins them. A moment later, Race is by him. Al reaches and steals the cigar right from his mouth, ignoring his protesting squawk. Crutchie shushes them with exaggerated annoyance.

Two stories later, Race swats him on the knee in farewell, and stands to go.

“Where you going?” Al whispers.

“Have an appointment. I’ll be back. Tell you all about it.” He winks, sticks out his tongue, and leaves.

Albert sighs, refusing to feel left out of Race’s secret adventures. He taps his fingers on his knee repeatedly to cope, until Romeo smacks at his hand in exasperation. He tucks his hands into his lap, downcast. He stopped listening to Jack long ago and can’t regain the thread of the story.

Finch settles next to him and taps at his own knee. Confused, Albert raises his eyebrows at him. Finch takes Albert’s hand and taps it against his knee in demonstration. “I don’t mind. This won’t bother Romeo.”

With a glance to Romeo on his other side, Albert taps at Finch’s knee, beating out his nervousness until Jack finishes the story and announces it’s time for bed.

The crowd disperses.

“Feel better?” Finch asks.

Still confused, Albert nods at him. “Yeah. Uh, thanks, I guess.”

Finch shrugs. “Anytime.”

Albert heads to Kloppman’s desk. Race still isn’t back, so Albert pays for a bed and heads upstairs, hoping to see Race either when he gets back or first thing in the morning.

*

“Al. Al you gotta wake up. Please.” Race nudges his shoulder. “Please wake up.”

Albert blinks awake and stares at Race’s shadowy form. “Huh?”

“Shh. I need your help.” He motions with his head, and Albert rolls out of bed to follow him.

In the washroom, Race has a candle lit on the counter. In the dim light, Albert can make out the beginnings of a bruise under his eye, and a few bloodstains on his vest. He holds out his hands for Albert to see.

They look like raw meat, oozing blood and covered in cuts and lacerations. One is wrapped in a bloodstained rag.

Al swallows. “What happened?”

“That appointment? Was meeting some regulars in Brooklyn f’r gamblin’. Y’know, par for the course. One of ‘em had a small bottle of whiskey, an’ I knicked it when I’s goin’. Thought he wouldn’t notice.” Race reaches for his hat to adjust it like he does when he’s fidgeting, flinches, and lowers his hand. “He noticed, chased me around the buildin’ and I jumped out a window.”

“You jumped out a window?”

Race grins sloppily. “Yeah! Glass was already gone! Ain’t it a good idea?”

“Race, shut up. You’s smarter than that and you knows it.”

He sighs. “You’s right. Was a pretty dumb thing to do all around.” He looks up at Albert piteously. “Scraped my hands where there’s broken glass on the ground. Hurts like hell.”

“Let me get some tweezers.” Albert hurries downstairs to the crate in the dining room where their stash of medical supplies is stored. He comes back with a bandana, bandages, and tweezers.

Race, in the washroom, has a small bottle of whiskey between two fingers. “Escaped with my prize! The spoils of war.”

“Put that shit away,” Al growls, angry at Race and at alcohol for making people do stupid things. He snatches it and sets it on the ground.

Outside, the sun starts rising, giving light to the work Albert has in front of him. He starts by carefully unwrapping the rag and setting it beside him. He motions for Race to sit.

Race sits miserably on an upturned bucket, head between his shoulders, his bloody hands palm-up, resting on his knees.

Albert kneels in front of him, cradling Race’s left hand in his palm and holding the tweezers between his fingers. “Okay. This is going to hurt.”

Race nods.

He starts with the biggest shard, lodged in the meaty part of his palm. Race flinches, grunting through his teeth. “God.

“I know,” Albert sighs, setting the shard on the bloody mess of a rag. He continues plucking shards out, occasionally dabbing lightly at the red drops that welled up in their place.

Race screws his eyes up, clenching his jaw.

When the last shard is out, Albert presses the bandana onto his palm, and wraps Race’s fingers around it. “Hold that for me.” He moves to the other hand, which is thankfully not as bad. There’s less glass, but there is a long scrape from the line of his thumb across the palm and down to the top of his wrist. Albert goes to work, picking bits of gravel and glass out of the gash. “You idiot,” he mumbles.

Race has his face turned away, eyes still squeezed shut. “Yeah?”

“You big fucking idiot, why did you jump out the window?”

“It was the only way out—ow—I couldn’t get around the guy. Fuck that hurts.

“Whiny baby.”

“Am not!” he whines.

Albert cocks an eyebrow, looking up into his blue eyes.

“I have glass in my hands,” Race defends himself, without Albert having to say anything.

“Idiot,” Albert mutters again, fond. He unwraps the rag from Race’s hand to dab away the blood from the cleared cut. “Ok. This is going to be the worst part.” He grabs the small bottle of whiskey.

Race whimpers. “Can’t I jus’ drink it? It’s a waste, that is!”

“Shut up.” Albert pours a quick splash on his palm before he can react.

Race hisses through his teeth, sharp and quick. “Do the other before I change my mind,” he grits out.

Another splash, and this time, his hiss ends in a small sob. Race snatches the bottle between two fingers and swallows the last of it down. He fumbles with the bottle, hands twisting in pain. Albert catches it and sets it to the side. No more broken glass.

Race breathes a steady rhythm, in-out, in-out, eyes still shut tight. “Thanks, Al,” he rasps—from whiskey or pain, Albert doesn’t know.

He takes the bandages and wraps them firmly around Race’s palms, noting the bruises on his knuckles to match the one on his cheekbone. And then it is just Albert, holding Race’s hands in his own, feeling his heartbeat where his thumb rests against his wrist.

Al looks up into Race’s face—tracing the line of his jaw to rest a moment on his lips, pink and parted slightly, to the crooked line of his nose, to the swelling blue bruise under his left eye, and finally into his eyes, clear and blue and beautiful.

You are amazing. You are incredible. You deserve every single expensive cigar handed to you on a silver tray.

What he says is, “Idiot.”

“Be nice to me, Al,” Race whines. “I’s in pain.”

“You’s going to sell lots of pity papes is what you is,” Albert grunts, looking away from him to gather the rag with the glass on it and the empty whiskey bottle.

Race chuckles, standing, keeping his bandaged hands close to his chest. “Thanks, Al. Al-pal. Buddy, friend. Best friend. You’s the best.”

“Awh, shaddup.”

Race grins again, sloppy and brash, fishing a cigar out of his pocket. He saunters out of the bathroom, calling, “Mornin’ fellas! Who wants ta hear tha story of me fightin’ off four, no, five, big goons today?”

Albert sighs. He leaves the washroom and heads to the fire escape. He wants to scream. He wants to bang his hands against the wall until they are just as bloody as Race’s. He doesn’t understand why he’s angry right now, he just is.

He hurls the empty whiskey bottle into the alley, and listens for the satisfying crash. He’s always hated whiskey, hated the smell, the color.

His father has always loved whiskey.

It seemed, no matter the time or place or person, whiskey always lead to pain.

Sure, Race will sell well today, probably partner with someone to help him in case his hands don’t work, and he’ll have a great tall tale to entertain newsies for a long time.

But he’s also an idiot. And Albert loves him regardless. Today, when he needed help, he came to Albert. Not Jack or Specs or Mush. Albert. He wonders what he would’ve done if Albert had gone home. It doesn’t matter. The point is, he chose Albert, and that thought will keep him warm all day.

*

On a rainy Wednesday night in November, Albert waits out the storm in the lodging house. He’s heading home—can’t afford to pay for a bed tonight—but he’d rather not get drenched just yet thank you. It’s cold enough that he wears Cormac’s old coat to sell, but he hates the feel of fabric encasing his arms, scratchy and constricting, so he discards it inside, spectating the game of Pinochle.

The Jacobs have been teaching them, along with Jack and Katherine. Apparently, that’s what they do on the nights when Jack and Katherine go to the Jacobs’ for dinner. Race and Josephine have joined them, keeping the teams even. They’re playing boys verses girls, though that part of it doesn’t seem essential to the game. They’ve gathered a small crowd—Crutchie, with Les straddling his good leg; Elmer and Buttons; Romeo and Mush.

“And that’s game,” Katherine says, sweeping the pile of cards to herself. “Pretty sure we won that.” She starts counting cards rapidly.

Sarah grins. “We won because we have the best partners.” She winks at Katherine and smiles at Josephine.

Jack grumbles as he slides his cards over to Davey to count. Davey thumbs through them and gives their score to Elmer.

“The girls have it,” Elmer says.

Race mutters a curse under his breath and kicks back in his chair. “Anyone else want to play?”

“I do!” Romeo shoots his hand high in the air and leaps to take Race’s spot.

Race drapes himself on Crutchie instead, leaning his elbows over the boy’s shoulders.

Albert watches Race watching the cards being dealt, committing his posture to memory. He files it away somewhere between his mind and his heart, in that place that’s just for pieces of Race. It’s where he keeps the sound of Race’s laughter and the scent of his cigars; how sunlight glints off his hair and the way he shuffles cards with reflexive ease.

And, like every other moment before it, Albert eventually looks away, almost guilty. He’s stealing something that doesn’t belong to him, something not given. He has no right to take what is not offered.

He must heave a sigh or make a sound of distress, because Mush turns to him in concern. “You okay? You look like someone shot your dog.”

“Mm.” Albert kicks absently at the table leg. “D’you ever have…girl troubles?”

“Do I?” Mush chuckles. “Seems like that’s all I have.”

Albert shrugs in agreement—Mush has had a string of girlfriends since he met him. “But you always end up with a date, right?”

“Eh, sometimes. Sometimes not. Depends on the girl, really.”

This is not helping. Albert tries a different tactic. “What’s the best way to get a gal to go out with ya?”

Mush’s eyebrows climb to his hairline and he grins. “Albert DaSilva! Do you have a crush?”

“Shut up!” Albert smacks him in the arm, prompting Mush to smack him back, but Race didn’t seem to have heard. “Maybe I do. Maybe I don’t. Talk too loud an’ I’ll soak ya,” he warns.

Mush nods in understanding. “Well, when you like a girl, you gotta get her ta like you.”

“I knows that, genius, why d’ya think I’m talkin’ to you?”

“Right, ok. See, you gotta get to know her, talk to her, get her to know you.”

Albert figures he knows Race the way he knows the lower Manhatten streets: really fucking well.

“Be charmin’, smooth, funny, and give her compliments. And flowers! Flowers are good.”

“Hm.” It’d be really weird if he gave Race flowers. “Anythin’ else?”

“When ya take her on a date, do something fun! And cheap.”

“Right.” Albert rests his chin in his hand, face scrunched as he tried to apply what Mush had just told him about girls, to Race, who was sitting next to Crutchie and playing finger sticks with Les.

“You’s talking about girls?” Romeo turns away from the completed round. “I’s got all the best advice.” He grins so brightly it hurts. “Compliment her! Flirt with her! But make sure not to show you care too much!”

“Why not?”

“Because then she gets the wrong idea. Gotta show ‘em you’s cool and carefree.”

“Hey geniuses,” Katherine interrupts. “If you’re wondering how to flirt with girls, how about asking some actual girls.

Albert swats Romeo and Mush’s shoulders, one after the other. Mush slaps at Romeo and then Romeo leaps out of his chair to shove at him playfully. They devolve into play fighting, oblivious to all else, tickling each other and rolling on the floor.

Albert rolls his eyes. “Tell me, Katherine. How do I get the girl?” Resigned to his plight, he settles back to listen.

“Girls are…easy,” Katherine says. “We’ll tell you just about anything, if you just ask, and then listen.” She looks over to Sarah.

“Listening isn’t just knowing what I said. It’s about listening to how I feel.” She gives Katherine an unreadable look.

“And yes flowers are nice, but I’m allergic. A lot of girls are. Why don’t you pay attention to something she really likes, instead?”

Jack says, “And be ready to apologize for when you mess up. ‘Cause you’s gonna mess up.”

Davey, Katherine, and Sarah laugh. Albert feels like he’s left out of some joke, something he can’t quite put his finger on. Most of the others have left the room, so he looks to Crutchie to explain. Crutchie shrugs. Albert sighs. “Well, thanks for the tips, guys.”

“Let us know how it goes!” Katherine says. “I’m already rooting for you.”

“Good luck, Albert,” Davey says, sincere. When Davey says something, you get the sense that he really means it.

“Thanks, Davey. I’ll be sure to let you know.”

“Just know that kissing girls is probably the best thing you’ll ever experience,” Sarah says, and Davey puts his face in his palm.

Actually, kissing girls sounds pretty gross to Albert, but they don’t need to know that. “I’ll…keep that in mind,” he mumbles.

“What’s this about kissing girls?” Race asks.

“Albert has a crush,” Jack sing-songs. Crutchie pokes him in the bicep, causing Jack to make his “what?” face.

Race’s expression does some gymnastics, going stony for a second, then swinging over to a shit-eating grin. “Albert has a crush?! This is glorious news! Tell me, is there some serious mental defect that causes her to be interested in you?”

“Race!” Crutchie snaps. “Give the man some peace.”

Race pulls an ugly face and leaves, muttering, “Gonna go smoke.”

“Sorry, Albert, he just don’t know when to stop,” Jack says. “’Course you prob’ly knows that.”

“I do.”

“It’s stopped raining,” Davey says. “Les, Sarah, we need to go home.”

“But I’m not—tired.” Les’s statement is betrayed by a huge yawn. Davey gently steers his brother toward the door by his shoulders.

Albert pokes at him as they pass. “Sure you’re not tired, shortstop. You’s just catching flies with your mouth.”

Les sticks out his tongue at him.

Standing, Jack reaches for his patched jacket. “I’ll walk you all home.”

Katherine pats his shoulder in passing. “Good luck, Albert. And let me know if you ever want any more advice or anything. I hope you know I consider you a friend.” She offers him a kind smile, and he returns it. If he thought he could offer Katherine anything she didn’t already have, he’d do it without question.

Finally, it’s just him and Crutchie. “It’s not really a girl, is it, Albert.” His words are timid but perfectly sure.

So he knows. He’s seen.

With his next inhale, his chest aches. Deliberately, he chooses his words, spoken hoarsely. “There’s never been anyone else.”

Crutchie understands, without either of them having to speak a name. The conversation doesn’t continue, because it doesn’t have to. Crutchie squeezes his arm, just above the elbow, comforting and tender.

Even if Albert doesn’t have a boyfriend, he does have good friends, and he wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world.

*

As Albert studies the colorful leaves at his feet, he wonders if this technically constitutes as breaking his promise. He promised not to ruin his friendship with Race, and surely this won’t do anything to harm that, right? Nevermind he got the idea while listening to the various pieces of “girl advice” he’d received. This could be an act of friendship.

Race has always loved the fall leaves, for as long as Albert can remember. Every year, he looks at their flame-like colors with awe, delight gracing his features.

In dirty New York, autumn leaves are hard to come by. Maybe this isn’t the best use of his time. He’d hopped a trolley to Central Park, and he’d surely be back by the time the evening paper was out.

Hopefully.

The leaves around his boots are mostly brown. On the trees, however, there are still lingering leaves in brilliant red, yellow, and orange. Albert pulls his selections off the trees—a small red-maroon one, a leaf that’s yellow at one end and red at the other, a large orange one, and a medium one that’s sort of orange and sort of red. If he showed it to Jack, he’d probably have some fancy name for the color.

Satisfied, he sets back the way he came.

A woman on the path presses herself as close to the other side as possible as she passes him. Albert tucks his chin into the collar of his coat and watches his feet carry him down the path. Just because he’s poor doesn’t mean he’ll automatically try to rob everyone.

His boots send rocks skittering in front of him, clattering haphazardly like wayward marbles.

Actually, that gives him an idea.

He slows his steps, looking intently at the rocks. There’s not going to be one that’s the perfect shade, but he can do his best.

When he has his prize, he hurries on his way, back just in time to catch the end of the evening distribution.

After dinner, he tugs on Race’s sleeve, pulling him toward the fire escape. Race turns immediately from talking to Specs to follow him outside.

On the fire escape, Albert suddenly finds himself trying to swallow his tongue and panicking.

“What is it?” Race asks, and when Albert meets his eyes, he catches a glimpse of the real Racetrack Higgins, the one only a few people ever see; quieter, empathetic, deeply caring, who really just wants to make everyone happy. Most people like Race for his quips and his exaggerated silliness, but this is the side of Race that won Albert’s loyalty forever.

Taking his silence as distress, Race continues, “Is something going on at home?” He reaches for Albert, then thinks better and aborts the motion halfway.

“No,” Al manages. The things at home are not why they’re out here right now. “I—I jus’ wanted ta give ya somethin’.” He reaches for the leaves—a little crushed from their journey in his pocket.

Suddenly they look paltry and small—just leaves. Nothing special. And how lame is that, he’s giving Race leaves.

Yet, something flickers in Race’s face, and he reaches for them, tenderly smoothing them back out. “They’s beautiful, Al. Thank you.”

“R-really?”

“I means it. They’s perfect.” He smoothes them again, oblivious to the world while admiring his treasure. Fingers, long and graceful, trace the veins on the underside of the leaves. The cuts on his palms are healed, dark pink and smooth, stretching with each movement.

“There’s somethin’ else.” He produces the rock, less worried about it’s reception. “The color—kinda reminded me a’ your eyes.”

Race flicks his gaze from the pebble on Al’s palm to his face and back again. “My eyes?”

“Yeah. Grey-blue-ish. I mean,” he swallows, “Never mind, it was stupid.”

“No!” Race snatches the rock. “I love it.” He runs his thumb over the smooth side of the rock, smiling a little. “Any reason for this?”

He thinks about kissing him, cupping his palms around the sharp angle of his jaw and brushing their lips together before pressing in—

No.

He made a promise.

“No reason,” he says. “Jus’ knew you likes the leaves. That’s all.”

Race isn’t smiling any more, but he nods and rubs his thumb on the pebble again. “Thanks, Al. Means a lot.” He places the pebble in his pocket—not drops or tosses or shoves—places. “Feel like a smoke?”

“Always.”

They settle into their usual positions, trading off the cigar.

Race is oddly quiet, fidgeting and tense. Finally he says, “Why didn’t you tell me you had a crush?”

Oh. “I—I just. Wasn’t ready.”

“That’s ok, I guess. But you know you can always tell me, right?”

“Yeah, Race, I do. Of course I do.”

“Good. So what’s she like?”

“What’s she like?” Al repeats, dumbly.

“Tell me about her. Please.” He makes a quick switch from tender and earnest to joking. “Gotta see if she’s worthy of my best friend.”

Al pauses, exhaling the smoke in grey curls through the air. “She’s amazing, Race. Got the brightest smile, the biggest eyes. Real pretty. She pretends she ain’t, but she’s real smart. And she’s funny—and brave—and she—she cares a lot.” He stops, swallowing around a lump in his throat.

Race is watching him with a funny expression, half-sorrow, half-joy. “Good luck,” he mumbles.

Al shrugs. “She’s too good for me. I prob’ly won’t make any headway.”

He pats Al on the shoulder, all brotherly sympathy. “Well, if she can’t see how amazing you is, she’s missing out.”

If only you knew.

*

It seems Albert delays going home later and later these days. If he waits, his father might be asleep. Or gone. Or too drunk to take his money.

Albert plays games with the littles, gives them piggyback rides around the lodging house, tossing them onto the couch at the end, giggling. There is nothing small children like more than being picked up and hurled at soft surfaces. He offers to help wash dishes, after dinner, when Henry needs help. He spends so much time with his fellow newsies, doing anything to occupy his time except go home.

“Come play with me!” Checker tugs on his pant leg.

“Just a minute, tough guy, I got’s to finish with the dishes.”

Checker pouts, but stops tugging on his pants. When Albert has dried and put away all the cups, he follows the boy into the common room, where there is already a game board set up.

He plays multiple rounds with the kid, and loses each time. As he chases down the last of Albert’s chips yet another time, Albert calls it quits.

“You’s just too good for me, I’s got to stop before this gets embarrassing.”

The boy laughs, spinning a game piece on its end.

Albert stands and stretches, reaching over his head to feel his spine spread. It’s getting to about time he should go, but he hasn’t seen Race yet, not since the selling line this morning before Race hightailed it to Brooklyn.

Sighing, Albert shrugs into his coat and steps outside.

From the alley beside the lodging house he hears the sound of breaking glass. Curious, he turns the corner to spy Finch, lining up his slingshot with a row of glass bottles and tin cans on the fence at the end of the alley.

Finch stands under the bottom of the fire escape, taking careful aim. He releases, and another can clangs on the ground.

Albert leans on the brick wall opposite the lodging house, watching as Finch loads a peach pit into his slingshot to nail another bottle. It crashes to the ground.

Satisfied, Finch turns the slingshot in his hands before tucking it into his back pocket, and collecting the fallen cans.

“Hard day?” calls Albert.

Finch shrugs unconcernedly. “Not particularly. I just think it’s important to stay in practice.”

Albert nods, unsure what to say next. He’d like a turn with the slingshot, so it’s second nature to snatch it from Finch’s back pocket as he bends to retrieve a can.

“Hey! That’s mine!”

Confused, Albert shrugs. “I know. ‘m just borrowing it.”

“Give it back.” The words are steady, even as Finch’s curly hair trembles with restrained anger.

“I just want a turn!” Albert pulls the pocket back to take one-eyed aim at a can.

Finch darts forward and yanks it from his hands, shoving Albert’s shoulder to drive him back.

“Hey! Would ya lighten up?”

“We don’t steal from each other,” Finch says stubbornly.

Watching him runs his fingers over the slingshot like it’s made of glass gives Albert pause. “Sorry,” he says, and he means it. He’s come from a “if I want it, I better take it, or it will be gone” home. There’s not room for personal property at his house.

Finch nods in acknowledgement. Then, looking from under the brim of his cap, “D’ya want a try?”

Nodding, he holds his hands out and waits for the slingshot to be given.

Finch gives it over readily, observing as Albert takes aim and fires. He misses, of course, pebble bouncing off the fence. Irritated, he grumbles at himself before trying again. This one, too, is sadly off-target. He shoves the slingshot at Finch, about to run away, embarrassed.

“Hey! Don’t be angry.”

His words grate on Albert. “I has a right to be angry!” he snaps. “Clearly I’m bad at this!”

Finch winces at his raised voice. “Don’t give up so easily,” he says gently, and passes back the slingshot. This time he guides Albert’s hands to aim better, fingertips easing over Albert’s tense wrists and arms. “Just relax,” he says, “That’s better. Don’t be afraid of missing. Have confidence.”

And this time, when he fires, he hits dead-on.

He smiles slowly. “I hit it.”

“Yeah! Want to do some more?”

“Sure, ok.”

Finch jogs over to the fence to set the cans back up, balancing them on the flat board that ran the length of the top of the fence.

Race saunters in like a cat that just caught the mouse. He drapes himself over Albert, nuzzling into his neck. “Al-pal! How you’s doin?”

Albert’s stomach does a funny twist at the nuzzling. “I’m a’ight. Where ya been?”

Race pushes off him. “In Brooklyn. Guess who just won against the great Spot Conlon? And got a whole pack of cigars?” He sticks out his tongue, full of himself.

Albert’s traitorous mind revises his earlier assessment: Race sauntered in like he’d just gotten laid.

“‘The great Spot Conlon?’” he parrots.

“Pfft, Spot’s just another newsie. Needs ta be reminded sometimes, but he’s just the same as you a’ me.”

Finch has returned by now, rolling his pebbles from hand to hand. “There’s a reason everyone’s afraid of him, though. You don’t become the head of Brooklyn for nothin’.”

“No, no, but you’s don’t gotta act like he’s some spook in the night eitha.”

Albert thinks on the few times he’s seen Spot. He’s short, dark-haired with a single white streak, crooked teeth and nose. His skin is medium brown, speckled with white splotches up his arms—in his elbows and on his neck. He’s muscular, sure, but he doesn’t pose that intimidating of a figure. Finch is right, it’s being head of Brooklyn that makes him scary.

It takes a lot to lead the sixth largest city in the world. Only someone fearsome could do it, for sure.

Rumors swirl around this kid—he pushed the last leader into the Hudson; he won in a knife fight; he fought every kid bigger than him until there was no one left to fight.

Albert reminds himself that sometimes suspicions and hearsay are just that: suspicions and hearsay.

Finch is saying, “You can’t deny, them Brooklyn boys is big. And they answer to him like he’s king of new york.”

“Excuse you, I’m the king of new york,” Race retorts.

“Is that why he lets you sell over there?” Finch snorts.

“Na, Spot lets me sell over there ‘cause he thinks I’m pretty.” Race drops an exaggerated sloppy wink at Albert. “Ain’t I?”

“Sure,” Albert answers with out thinking, and he doesn’t miss the way Finch stares at him a little too long. He looks steadily at Race. “You’s plannin’ on sharin’ those cigars? Or should I just head on home.”

“No, don’t go home.” Race flicks his eyes from Albert to Finch. “You fancy a smoke, Finch?”

Finch shakes his head. “Not really my thing. Thanks for the offer.” He slaps lightly at Albert’s back. “Another time for the slingshot?”

“Sure,” Albert nods, and he means it. There was something nice about letting Finch guide him today.

But right now, he climbs up the ladder to the fire escape with Race. The cigars aren’t coronas, for sure, but they are pretty good. They shoot the shit for a while, teasing and laughing, easy in the semi-dark.

“You could stay here, tonight,” Race offers. “Could cover you if you needed.”

Albert hesitates. It’s far past too cold to sleep outside, not that he was considering it anyway. He’s got a bed—pallet—at home, and Brendan will want to see him. Cormac, he couldn’t care less, but Brendan—Brendan is still his brother, and that’s enough to bring him home.

“Nah, no need for that. I’ll be fine.”

Race eyes him for a moment, spinning the cigar between his fingers. Albert snatches it and takes a long drag. Race doesn’t protest.

“If you’re sure,” he says softly. “Wouldn’t be a problem to cover you.”

“I said I’m fine!” His anger comes from nowhere, disappearing as soon as it had appeared. “I’m sorry. I didn’t—I’m sorry.” He holds out the cigar as an apology.

Race takes it cautiously. “It’s okay.” Smoke curls out with each word. “I knows you’s got a lot going on at home—an’ you’s stressed, an’—if yellin’ helps, then it helps.”

Al drops his head. “Shouldn’t shout at you. Or Finch, or anybody. Makes me no better than my dad, then.”

“Albert DaSilva, you stop that right now.” Al’s head snaps up at his tone. “You are nothing like your father, and I know because I’ve met him and I’ve seen—I’ve seen what he does to you.” Race’s voice cracks. “Al, I’m. I’m worried about you.”

Al shrugs. “Others have it worse.”

Race sighs, and rests his hand on Al’s knee. “Yeah, but others ain’t you.” He pauses then, smirking, “After all, no one else has such hair, I mean, really, you could spot that a mile away!” He snatches his hat, rumpling his hair.

Al wrinkles his nose, punching him lightly in the chest. “Ge’off me!”

“Never!” Race flops on top of him, sending them both to the landing, cigar forgotten and burnt out. Al pushes against Race, playfully tussling until he manages to buck his hips and unbalance them enough to flip so he’s straddling Race.

His hat is gone, curly hair fanning on the landing and falling on his forehead. For what must be the millionth time, Al thinks of kissing him, pinning him down and kissing him until they are both breathless and shining and alive.

He sticks out his tongue, grinning at Albert. “Like what you see?” He winks.

“Shut up.” Al climbs off him, retrieving their hats and jamming his back on. “Gotta go home. See you in the morning.”

Race pulls on his hat with a twist of his wrist. “See you in the morning. Stay safe for me.”

“Sure, mom.”

“Somebody outta keep an eye on your disastrous ass!”

Albert gives it a wiggle. “It’s a damn good ass!”

“Mine’s better!”

Al flips him off without looking back, warm inside his coat.

Chapter Text

In the winter, Albert breaks his promise. It is many things, little things all at once, but when it starts, it’s not his fault.

“You lousy no-good—” his father’s words devolve into grunts and wordless shouts. The blows come fast, some of them not even hitting, but the ones that hit, hit hard.

Albert is so, so tired.

He knows, in the abstract, that it was around this time of year that his mother died. And he knows, in the abstract, that at some point this will have to end. But not he just curls into himself, and takes his mind away—to images of Race, laughing; of him twirling his cigar in his fingers; of him giggling beneath Albert on the fire escape.

It’s never been this bad before.

“Da, stop!” Brendan is shouting, pulling his father off him. His father backhands him, hard, bellowing.

And suddenly Cormac is there, too, pushing his father to the ground, grunting through his teeth.

When he collapses, their father suddenly begins sobbing, repeating like a child, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

Cormac gets off him, disgusted. He looks from Brendan to Albert, still curled on the ground, and storms out the door.

Brendan hunches over him. “Albert, get up, you need to go, go now, hurry, before he gets up again, go—”

“What about you?”

“I’ll be fine, I have a plan, it’s okay, go!” He pulls Albert to his feet, dizzy, and pushes him out the door.

Albert runs. He doesn’t know what else to do, with tears blurring his eyes and his chest aching and his bruises stinging. It’s cold, bitter, sharp, tearing cold, and he doesn’t have a coat. He hunches over, whimpering, sniffling.

If any of his family saw him now, he’d be a sorry sight.

Somehow, he finds himself at the lodging house. He looks up at it, teeth chattering. The windows are dark. It’s far past curfew, all the boys should be asleep, and it’s too cold for the roof tonight. He knocks on the door. No one answers.

The fire escape is covered in frost, but he manages to climb up to the window of the bunk room, and knocks.

Please, he thinks, Please someone.

“Please,” he whimpers.

Knocking again, he catches his reflection in the windowpane. His eye is swollen, blood frozen or dried around his mouth and nose. He tongues his split lip, tasting metal.

The wind batters him, sending him crouching at the window, tapping with what strength he has left. Hopeless, he leans on the cold glass.

The window moves beneath him. “Albert?” says someone, and it is Race, pulling him through the window and gently touching his bruised cheek.

“R-Race,” he shivers, teeth chattering so fast.

“Holy hell, Al, what happened?”

“D-d-da.”

“Shit.” Race’s face flattens, hard.

“What’s going on?” Finch whispers, sitting up. “Holy shit, Red, what happened to you?”

“Never mind that,” Race snaps. “Let’s get him warmed up.”

Finch is up and out of bed in an instant, diving for the blanket basket in the corner. He drapes one over Albert’s trembling shoulders as Race eases him onto the edge of a bed.

“Do we have--?”

“Tea,” answers Finch, and is gone again, hurrying downstairs.

Race pats his knee gently. “Gonna get you patched up, okay?” and he leaves.

When Finch comes back with the tea, Race has tenderly wiped off the dried blood and draped another blanket over him.

Albert takes the cup, still shivering, grateful. He can’t see much in the dark, but none of the other boys seem to have moved.

Race pets over his head. “I’m so sorry,” he whispers.

“Who did this,” Finch hisses. “I swear I’ll soak ‘em so bad they won’t see straight.”

Race makes an abortive motion, but Albert croaks, “My dad.”

Finch’s eyes go wide, then soft, and he kneels. “I’m sorry.” He puts his hand on Albert’s knee.

Race looks from Finch to Albert sadly, and settles beside him on the bed. “Feelin’ any warmer?”

Albert nods. “Would like sleep?”

“Okay. You can stay in my bed. Can’t have you getting cold.”

Albert nods vaguely. “Okay.”

“Okay.”

Finch takes the mostly empty mug and with a final look, heads back to his bed.

Race eases Albert into bed, wrapping the sheet and blanket around him. He squeezes onto the bed beside him, pulling the blanket over both their shoulders. He shifts close, pressing his chest to Albert’s so his body heat can pour over him, using his height to good advantage.

The bed is not big, and it was not made for two, but they’ve known each other forever, close contact is nothing new. If Albert were more awake, he might flinch at being so close to Race, what with his promise to not mess up their friendship. It might feel wrong or stolen, but right now, all Albert feels is warm and safe and peaceful.

*

The next morning, Finch walks with Albert to the cathedral where the nuns are handing out breakfast.

“How ya feelin’?”

Albert grunts. “Cold.”

Finch laughs lightly. “I’m sure. Can I make you warm?”

Arms crossed and shoulders hunched, Albert glances at him. “Sure?”

Finch drapes an arm over his shoulders and bumps his hip to Albert’s. “Better?”

“Not really.”

Finch removes his arm, shoves his hands in his pockets. “Sorry! I didn’t mean—”

“You’s fine. Jus’ don’t like being touched, much. I’m gonna ask the sisters for a coat.”

“Yeah, okay.” Finch watches him go.

Of all the nuns, Sister O’Doyle has always been his favorite. She’s the youngest, probably by a good bit, pink cheeked and happy to see them. She never hounds them into coming to mass, never tries to convert them, just gives them their breakfast and the latest gossip. It turns out nuns have very interesting lives; the latest drama is always something like “Sister Margaret was found with curlers under her wimple” or “Sister Magee missed morning vespers by oversleeping but no one’s surprised since she’s too old and deaf to hear the bells.” In turn, Albert tells her about the latest prank he and Race have gotten up to—her favorite was the time they hid Specs shoes under his own bed after he’d already looked there.

He finds her today, and she gives him a bright smile. “Good morning, Albert! Oh! I see you were in a fight. Did you win?” Her accent is lilting, reminding Albert of a kinder time.

Albert winces. “Nah, I lost pretty bad. Sister, do you have any spare coats ta give ta the poor? I’s pretty poor, and also pretty cold.” He winks with his unblackened eye.

She frowns at him, clearly wondering where his other coat had gone and what had happened, but she says, “Wait here, I’ll go check.” She returns a moment later with a plain brown jacket, lined with something soft on the inside. “It’s all we have, I hope it fits.”

Albert pulls it on, and to his delight, it’s too big, allowing him to retract his hands into the sleeves. There’s a rip in the left pocket, but he’ll ask Buttons to fix it tonight. While he hates the feeling of things encasing his arms, the sleeves are a nice soft texture, not scratchy and encasing like his hand-me-down. “It’s perfect,” he says.

“Good. Take care of your black eye for me,” she says.

“Of course!”

Race pokes at the elbow of his coat. “Well, aren’t we the hoi-paloi! This is top-notch stuff!” He tips his hat at Sister O’Doyle. “Mornin’ sista, renouncing the faith to run away with me yet?”

“Race, you charmer!” she giggles.

*

After dinner that night, Finch asks if the new coat is warm enough.

“Yep! Buttons fixed the rip, so I’s all set!”

“Well.” Finch twists his slingshot in his hands for a moment. “If you’s ever want to get warm, offer still stands.” He tucks his slingshot into his back pocket and strolls away.

Albert blinks and nudges Race, who’s losing to Checker at checkers. (The kid is worthy of his name.) “Is Finch flirtin’ with me?”

Race’s face twists, in confusion or irritation, Albert can’t tell. “Nahh, no way! Pfft.” He flaps his hand like he’s waving away smoke. “No.”

Albert squints. “Oh.”

When it comes time for bed, Albert goes back to where he and Race had slept the night before, and pauses. He really shouldn’t share a bed with Race. It has to be uncomfortable. Besides, if Race knew what he was thinking—how he felt—he’d feel so awkward, and definitely wouldn’t want Albert in his bed. Yet here he came, giving him a friendly slap on the back and crawling under the covers.

“What you’s waiting on? Pigs to fly?” He holds up the blanket invitingly.

“You sure I ain’t bothering you?”

“Where else is you gonna go? The beds’s full! Beside, if we split the cost, it’s better for both of us. And warmer.”

That sounds…logical. Albert climbs in bed, laying stiff. Race wiggles around, getting comfortable and throwing an arm over Al’s waist.

Then, “Race, are you…wearing your shoes?”

Race goes tense. “…yeah, what of it?”

“Why?”

A beat. “Don’t like having ‘em off.”

Ordinarily, Albert would press. But not tonight, not right now. He can put up with Race wearing shoes to bed. Maybe one day he’ll ask, but not tonight. Not now.

Now he is safe and comfortable and warm.

*

Moving into the lodging house is the best decision Albert has made in a while. It’s just like before, except instead of having to leave in fear of what he might find, he gets to crawl into bed with his best friend and crush. He feels guilty, sometimes, but most of the time he just lets himself enjoy it. He gets used to Race rolling out of bed to go have a quiet smoke before the day really gets started. He gets used to trekking over to the cathedral, gossiping with the sisters, before heading to newsie square. He sells in the day—partnering with another newsie, sometimes a little, sometimes Race—and comes home—comes home--to his favorite people in the world. He eats dinner at the lodging house and plays games and spends time with all his friends. Race goes to Brooklyn about twice a week, and sometimes he spends the night. Those are the only nights Albert dislikes, lying alone in the dark, the small bed suddenly too big. It is then that he considers Finch’s offer, rolling the thought around in his mind. He likes Finch, he does. Finch is kind, and cool, and walks everywhere like he owns the place. Sometimes he’s anxious, but mostly he’s enjoyable company.

As Christmas draws near, Albert suddenly finds himself with more funds than he’s ever had. Without a thieving father, he has excess cash. He goes Christmas shopping for the first time in his life. He gets a hair ribbon for Eilish—it seems small and useless, but the light blue will match her hair; and he gets a handful of caramel penny candies for Crutchie—he’s always liked them, but won’t buy them for himself; and then he’s left with what to get Race. He remembers, back in the summer, when Race had them all say what they’d buy if they were rich. Race wanted shoes with matching laces, and Albert’s stumped. He can’t afford shoes, for sure, and he doesn’t know why Race wants shoes so badly. (Or why he wears his to bed.) But Albert can afford new shoelaces, so he buys a sturdy pair and hides them in the pocket of his coat until Christmas.

On Christmas day, Katherine surprises all the newsies by pulling up in a car and saying, “We’re having a party!”

The boys are delighted, and Jack sends Mike over to the girl’s house to invite them. Specs gives Katherine a hug, and Albert shuffles up to her, shy. “Thanks, Katherine. It’s really—I hadn’t had a Christmas like this in a long time.”

“You’re welcome,” she says, and opens her arms for a hug.

“What would ya father say if he knew what you did with his money?”

She giggles. “He’d turn red in the face. It would be wonderful!”

“Katherine, you’s a peach.”

“Thank you, Albert. You’re a banana.”

The house is filled with light and movement—Buttons and Elmer and Sniper and Smalls are brought in, the girls arrive, as do the Jacobs, and Kloppman invites Jacobi over to celebrate. Albert learns that Katherine and the Jacobs don’t celebrate Christmas, but they are more than happy to enjoy a party. They have their own holiday, Hanukah, but it’s not like Christmas at all, from what Albert can tell.

The feast Katherine has gifted smells divine—turkey and ham and roast beef, cooked potatoes and corn and carrots, fresh fruit, and lots of cakes and pies and other treats. The newsies sit around the dining room table and feast like kings. Race is practically glowing, light from the fireplace glinting off his gold hair. Albert drinks it in with his eyes, how damn happy Race is right now, surrounded by his friends. He makes jokes and teases others, but sticks close to Albert’s side, bumping their shoulders together.

After dinner, Albert pulls him upstairs. “Race, I have a present for you.”

Race’s face lights up. “Ya do?”

He nods, and pulls the shoelaces out from his coat. “Merry Christmas. I knows they ain’t much, but. Figured you’d like ‘em.”

Race nods, seeming overcome. “I love them.” He drops immediately to the ground and strips the old, frayed, knotted laces out. He works the new ones in, tying them in a sharp bow. “They’s perfect.” He leaps to his feet, jumps a couple times, spins on his tip toes. “Perfect,” he repeats, grinning, and wraps Albert in a hug.

Their moment is shattered when Mush bursts in, shouting, “Katherine brought Christmas crackers!”

Eventually, they are all in the common room, music playing through the tinny gramophone and the littles playing with the cheap toys from the crackers.

Kloppman enters, waving his hands to get their attention. None of the newsies heed, until Jack shouts over the chaos, “Pipe down, ya ruffians!”

“Thank you, Jack. Since it is Christmas, I think we need to pay respect where it is due.” He holds up a thick black book. “Let us remember why we celebrate.” The newsies settle themselves, mostly on the floor near the fireplace, Sarah and Katherine on the couch. Albert finds himself next to Race on the floor.

Kloppman reads from the gospel of St. Luke, rasping in his aging voice. The newsies mostly listen, but shift and wiggle under the constraints of the old language. Still, Albert thinks, there is something nice about the thought of this whole thing starting because of some poor folks.

When Kloppman finishes, he retreats to his room, saying, “You may return to your chaos.”

Jack stands. “Hold it. I think we need to show respect for the holiday. Davey’s told me he can recite some poetry, and I want to hear it.”

Davey flushes, motioning at him to shut up.

The boys groans at the mention of poetry, and immediately start heckling Davey.

“Aw, Jack, I couldn’t—I mean, you don’t want to hear—I’m not—”

The boys shout, “Let’s hear it, Mouth!” “C’mon, Davey!” “We knows you ain’t shy!”

Finally, he stands up before them, pink in the face and twisting his hands together. He stammers for a moment, glances at Jack, and takes a deep, settling breath.

“When I heard at the close of the day,” he says, “by Walt Whitman.”

The words that flow from him then are smooth and practiced, steady in their delivery. When Albert was at school, he remembered the torture of standing in front of the class and reciting a poem he’d painfully memorized and didn’t understand. But Davey’s delivery is clean and clear, not the impassioned speeches of the strike, but something smoother.

“When I heard at the close of the day how my name had been receiv’d with plaudits in the capitol, still it was not a happy night for me that follow’d,
And else when I carous’d, or when my plans were accomplish’d, still I was not happy,
But the day when I rose at dawn from the bed of perfect health, refresh’d singing, inhaling the ripe breath of autumn,
When I saw the full moon in the west grow pale and disappear in the morning light,
When I wander’d alone over the beach, and undressing bathed, laughing with the cool waters, and saw the sun rise,
And when I thought how my dear friend my lover was on his way coming, O then I was happy,
O then each breath tasted sweeter, and all that day my food nourish’d me more, and the beautiful day pass’d well,
And the next came with equal joy, and with the next at evening came my friend,
And that night while all was still I heard the waters roll slowly continually up the shores,
I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands as directed to me whispering to congratulate me,
For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night,
In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face was inclined toward me,
And his arm lay lightly around my breast—and that night I was happy.”

There is silence, then a light smattering of confused applause. Davey bites his lip and smiles only a tiny bit before sitting down again.

Albert has never loved or understood poetry, but he has to admit, that was nice. There was something calming about the smooth rhythm of the words.

Mush says, “I don’t know about liquid sands, but that sounded like a song. We know any carols, boys?”

A few boys groan in protest, but Elmer gets an excited look on his face. “My family used to go caroling a lot! I know a bunch!”

With a chorus of shouted encouragement, he stands up like Davey did, and raises his hands like an orchestra conductor. Mush hoots at him and Elmer giggles, flushing bright. “Okay. Um…”

He starts them with God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen, and then The First Noel, and Angels we Have Heard on High, and O Come All Ye Faithful, and on and on. They’re not great, and some of it is downright awful, but they make do. Specs is a surprise bass, and Jack mostly carries the melody, and the rest of them do their best. Race has a surprisingly clear voice, and he takes to the caroling with a quiet sort of respect Albert didn’t see coming. Maybe even Race has it in him to respect a tradition so longheld as Christmas.

The Jacobs and Katherine just watch, sometimes humming along. Sarah sleepily leans her head on Katherine’s shoulder. Albert finds himself getting drowsy, tipping closer to Race. When he finally lands against Race’s side, the other boy is not bothered, and adjusts so Al can be more comfortable. Eventually, Albert lays down, head pillowed on Race’s thigh.

When they finally stop caroling, the night has grown dark, cold, and still. Davey scoops up a sleeping Les and says they’d better head home. Katherine offers them a ride, and Jack goes with them, promising to be back soon.

Specs stands, stretches, and starts helping the youngest boys to bed. The girls say their goodbyes, and head into the cold, back to their lodging house only a few streets over. Mush, Romeo, and Mike and Ike offer to escort them. Buttons and Elmer leave together, wrapped tight in scarves.

One by one, the newsies trickle off to bed or home, leaving only Finch, Albert, and Race in the common room.

Finch stretches out on the couch. “Merry Christmas, boys.” He rubs his belly. “Haven’t eaten that rich in ages.”

Race brings out his cigar. “Mind if I?”

Both boys mumble acquiescence, so he lights it and takes a drag. “Didn’t celebrate Christmas as a kid,” he drawls. “Don’t really remember.”

“I did, a bit, ‘fore I was a newsie. Not really like this, though.” Finch falls silent, and Albert is left to wonder what that meant.

“What about you, Al?” Race asks quietly, running a hand over Al’s hair.

He swallows. “When I was real little. Me mum loved Christmas.”

Finch yawns. “Mine too. Used to make the best tamales.”

Albert decides to remember that, a little puzzle piece of the mystery that is Finch Cortes.

“Figure mothers must be good for that sort of thing,” Race mumbles.

Finch hums.

Maybe it’s the darkness, or the gentle fall of snow outside, or Race’s fingers steadily stroking through his hair, but Albert says, “I miss my mother, sometimes.”

Finch rolls onto his side, face tender. “Me too.”

Race coughs around the cigar. “Can’t miss what I never had.” His voice is sharp and too loud, and he stops playing with Al’s hair.

“Sorry,” Finch says.

“You knew my mother,” Albert says, not because Race ever knew his mother the same, but because Race is just as much his family as his siblings.

He shrugs. “Not the same.”

Finch, looking between them like he’s understanding something for the first time, says, “We’s all got our stories.”

“Who needs that mess anyway,” Race says, gesturing with the cigar. He looks down at Albert. “We’s better off here, anyway.”

Al remains silent, thinking of Eilish and Brendan and Cormac, wondering if they’re alright.

Finch changes the subject. “Some poem tonight. Didn’t know Mouth could say something so pretty.”

Race cackles. “Ain’t never heart something so pretentious, pretty or not.”

“I kinda liked it,” Al protests.

“Ain’t saying it weren’t pretty. Jus’ not my thing.” Race scratches Al’s hair again.

Finch rolls off the couch, rising catlike to his feet. “Think I’m gonna hit the hay. Albert? You’s looking pretty sleepy.”

Al hums.

“I’ll help you up.” Finch holds out his had and pulls Albert to his feet. He holds on a moment longer than necessary, and when he lets go, the phantom of his fingers tingle on Al’s palm. “Goodnight,” he says softly.

Race scrambles to his feet, all arms and legs and graceless jumbling. He bumps his shoulder into Albert’s. “Fire escape?”

“Think I’m just gonna go to bed,” Al mumbles, still watching Finch climb the stairs.

“Alright. I’ll come too.” He hip-checks Albert and shoves his shoulder roughly, effectively distracting him from Finch.

In the bunk room, it is dark and quiet. They get ready for bed silently, hurrying under the covers to stave off the cold.

Race runs his fingers through Albert’s hair again. “Merry Christmas, Al,” he whispers.

“Merry Christmas, Race.”

They lie in silence, comfortably tangled together under the covers. Race falls asleep within seconds, his light, wheezing snore breathy against Al’s neck.

As he drifts off to sleep, Albert returns again to the poem Davey recited. No, he’s never understood poetry very well, and he’s not entirely sure he’s remembered it right, but one line tumbles, fragmented, through his mind.

The one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night—his face was inclined to me—and I was happy.

On the pillow, Race’s slack face is tilted toward him. He breathes out, slow and even, cigar smoke smell lingering.

Albert pulls the blanket higher over their shoulders.

And he is happy.

*

Finch hangs out with Albert a lot in the next week. They partner to sell, meandering down bottle alley and splitting a street vendor’s meat pie for lunch. He makes good on his offer to teach Albert to use a slingshot, and by the end of the week, Albert is getting pretty good.

He tells Albert a little more about himself—more than he’s ever said in the past. He used to have a good family, but there was a problem with a gang, and he doesn’t elaborate further. “I always figure they’ll come back some day,” he says with a grin, “but they haven’t yet.”

Albert tells him his mother passed away, but that he has three siblings who he loves dearly.

Finch smiles a little at this, a half-splintered thing. “I just count the newsies as my siblings. Big bunch of little brothers and sisters.”

Race goes over to Brooklyn a lot that week—there are multiple races around the holidays, and he comes back with plenty of spare cash. He and Albert go halfsies paying for a bed, and Race actually buys some cigars for once, much to Albert’s delight.

The nuns hand out extra fresh food that week—Christmas always stirs the hearts of parishioners into giving more generously.

“Don’t see why people think they only need to be nice once a year,” Finch jokes. “Seems to me like niceness should go all year round.”

“Everyone knows you’s only has to be kind at Christmas,” Race retorts, “You save up all year waitin’ for that one day. If you’s was nice all the time, you might run out!”

Albert decides he likes the look of Race’s bagel better than his doughnut, so he reaches over and takes it.

“Hey!” Race says.

“What? I used all my kindness at Christmas, I can be mean!” He fends off Race’s light punches, preparing to placate him with the doughnut.

Finch frowns at them, gently takes the bagel from Albert and returns it to Race. “We don’t steal from each other,” he tuts.

Albert sighs. “Race,” he says with heavy eye rolling, “Can we trade breakfasts?”

Race hands back the bagel and takes the doughnut, perfectly happy.

“Wasn’t that easier?” Finch asks.

“You just didn’t let us finish,” Albert grumbles.

Race shrugs. “If you ask, they might say no.”

“Or they could say yes,” Finch replies.

Another morning, Sister O’Doyle tells Albert how one of the older sisters snuck a bottle of gin into the convent and got uproariously drunk.

“Never liked alcohol,” Albert says.

Race looks at him speculatively. “Haven’t had any in a long time.”

Finch shrugs. “It’s fine, I guess. Never really saw why people got so obsessed with it.”

And one evening, Finch challenges Albert to chess—a game Race has never been able to play but that Albert appreciates. They set up by the fireplace, the board on a little stool between them.

“Let’s raise the stakes,” Finch says casually, setting up his pieces. The game pieces are a hodgepodge—collected from a number of sets, and one rook has been replaced by a stick whittled into a pole.

“Oh?”

“Yes. You win, you can ask me any question you please, and I’ll answer truthfully.”

“And if you win?”

“The same, I think.”

Albert thinks this over. Finch is a very private person, quiet about his past. For him to offer this meant more than Albert felt he grasped, so he agrees.

They take their time, occasionally bothered by another newsie, but mostly left to stare at the board in peace. They carry on light, pointless conversation over the board, as the game drags on, until most of the other boys have gone to bed. Albert is reckless in his playing, not thinking too far ahead, while Finch is much more a strategist. The only reason he hasn’t won yet is because Albert keeps doing the unexpected.

Finch wins, of course, and Albert seethes internally at being humiliated.

“Alright, ask away,” he grumbles.

Finch reclines, mulling over his options. When he asks, he asks quietly. “What do you want to do when you leave here?”

Albert blinks, shaking his hand nervously. Of all the questions he’d been expected, this wasn’t it. He’d expected something dirty or embarrassing, like Race might do. Not this serious future talk. For Albert, it’s enough to live day to day right now, so this—

“I don’t know,” he says truthfully. “Haven’t thought about it much.”

Finch gazes at him steadily. “No?”

“No, I—not yet. You?” he asks, to cover his fluster.

Finch looks into the fire, the orange flames reflected on his face. “I’ve been thinking about getting a job. It’s easy to get work at the shipyards, or a factory. I’d get an apartment or find a boarding house, stay there.” He turns his eyes to Albert. “If I had a roommate, someone to help pay rent, I wouldn’t mind.”

Albert shifts his weight from side to side, tapping his hand on his knee.

“It’s not like we can be newsies forever. I’m getting old.”

It’s not something Albert’s really had the luxury of considering before. He’d always been too concerned about getting his next meal, avoiding his father, and making it through another day. And now here was Finch, encouraging him to look outside himself and to a bigger world.

The big world is scary.

Finch yawns and stretches. “We’d best go to bed. Tomorrow’s new year’s eve.”

Albert agrees.

Race is asleep by the time he gets there, and he whines in his sleep when Albert crawls under the covers. He nuzzles into Albert’s shoulder, grunts, and falls still.

Albert lays silent in the dark, and thinks.

*

There weren’t official plans for a party, but it’s too big a night to ignore. It’s the turn of the fucking century, after all, they deserve to celebrate it. So they haul out the gramophone and Jack goes out and buys a fuckton of penny candies—because he can afford that now, what with his cartoonist job. Sometimes, Albert forgets he has that job, until he catches Jack hurriedly sketching on a spare newspaper or sees Crutchie save his last pape to keep Jack’s cartoon for posterity.

It’s a small party, but they play games and dance and cause a ruckus. Kloppman has gone to stay at Jacobi’s; presumably, to get some peace and quiet. The girls all come—Sarah Jacobs brings a gaggle of laundry girls with her.

This excites Romeo to no end. “What’s a party without girls, eh?” He wiggles his eyebrows and elbows him before scampering off to talk to one of the laundry girls.

Historically, Albert thinks, still a party.

He plays with the littles, swinging them around and chasing them around the lodging house.

Katherine shows up, with Bill Hearst and Darcy Reid and a dozen bottles of champagne. This is enough to convince the older newsies to get the littles to bed, with much protesting and groaning.

“I want to stay!” Les shouts, hands on hips. “I am eleven years old.” He tips his chin up to show dignity. Most of the time he says he’s eight, unless it’s inconvenient. Like now.

“No, Les, you need to go home,” Davey coaxes.

“Let the kid stay,” Jack says, swinging an arm over Davey’s shoulders. “He can sleep upstairs. I’ll pay for it.”

“Jack, no, I can’t let you—”

“Davey.” Jack raises his brows and tips his chin down, and Albert suddenly feels like his very gaze is intruding.

Mush is parading his girlfriend around, introducing her to everyone. Katherine is pouring champagne into glasses—they don’t have the proper goblet-things, but this will do. Albert declines.

Race appears at his shoulder, clutching a full glass. “Heloooo, Albie! Al-pal! Albert!” He drapes himself over his back.

“How much have you had?”

“Not nearly enough,” he giggles and takes another drink. He looks at the liquid and then at Albert. “You don’t mind, do you?” he asks, softer.

“No, it’s fine.” Albert flaps his hands from the wrist.

Still, Race doesn’t drink again as he hangs off Albert.

Crutchie approaches, grinning. “Happy new year!” He smiles so big it might split his face.

“Happy new year!” Albert responds.

“This year’s going to be the best one yet! Welcome Twentieth Century!” Race says, clearly still drunk.

Albert remembers what Finch had said, about looking toward the future. He thinks about the new year, the new century, and thinks about what might happen. So many things could happen, and he’s going to get to see them. The thought brings him so much joy. He laughs loudly for no reason, drawing a baffled look from Crutchie.

“Dance with me!” Race slurs, and grabs at Crutchie.

“Woah, hey, I ain’t good at walkin’, let alone dancin’.”

“I’s gotcha. Hang on.” Race spins him around the room, laughing uproariously.

Albert leans against the wall, a little removed from the party. It is loud and overwhelming, and he taps his palm against his thigh. He won’t leave, though. Not for the world. He wants to be right here, watching history be made.

It is almost midnight. Albert looks around the room as their friends are surreptitiously coupling up. It’s tradition to kiss someone at midnight, a tradition Albert hasn’t given much of a damn for before, but this is no ordinary new year. This is the turn of the century, and it feels important, somehow, that even he should bring in the new year right. It would be his first kiss, and somehow that is more special. It wouldn’t even have to be meaningful or romantic, just a kiss would be enough.

He scans for Race, for the mop of blond curls and wide smile, but he is nowhere to be seen. Instead, he sees his friends. Buttons is sitting on an apple crate, Elmer standing between her legs. Elmer cups Button’s face in his hands, and Buttons looks like she can’t believe her luck. On the couch, Sarah Jacobs and Katherine are sitting very close—Sarah is almost in Katherine’s lap at this point. Darcy Reid is sitting on Katherine’s other side, legs crossed, still quite prim and proper. Bill Hearst is much looser, coat discarded over the arm of the couch, laughing with Specs. Mush and his girlfriend are already kissing avidly, and by the way Mush’s hand is working its way up her skirt, Albert won’t see them again tonight. Romeo, too, has found a girl to giggle and canoodle with.

Jack shouts over the general noise, “Aaaaa’right folks, it’s time! The new year’s comin’!” He pulls Davey to his feet. “Newsies of Manhatten! Happy New Year!

Outside, church clocks all over Manhatten start to chime, and the folks in the lodging house start to cheer.

As Albert watches, Jack pulls Davey in for a kiss.

Somehow, it wasn’t something Albert saw coming.

Bill Hearst kisses Darcy Reid in sight of God and all of them, and no one bats an eye. Even the most proper among them aren’t as proper as they look.

And there’s Katherine kissing Sarah, so that explains why she’s not kissing Jack.

Albert scans for Race again, but there’s no sign of him.

Someone leans against the wall next to him. “Albert?”

It’s Finch. Albert blinks at him, confused.

“Albert, do you—?” he makes a vague gesture at the cheering, laughing, kissing crowd.

Albert nods, breath hitching, his eyes flicking down to Finch’s smiling lips.

“Alright.” He slides a hand up to cup Albert’s neck.

Albert, in his perfect inexperience, shuts his eyes and leans forward to crash his mouth into Finch’s. Finch laughs into it, and coaxes Albert to relax and kiss gently, his hand caressing the back of Albert’s neck.

It is nice, pleasantly warm, and it lasts a good few moments before they mutually break apart.

He looks into Finch’s warm honey eyes set in smooth tan skin, soft dark hair curling at the temples, catching his breath.

Finch’s eyes go back to his lips before sliding up to meet his gaze. Gently, he murmurs, “Happy new year, Albert DaSilva.”

*

“Didn’t think I’d see you here tonight,” Race says tightly, not looking up from unbuttoning his shirt.

“Why?”

Race glances up briefly, a guarded hurt on his face. “Finch.”

“Finch? You didn’t think I’d really let a man bed me after a single kiss? I though you had a higher opinion of me, Higgins.”

Race huffs. “Sure didn’t look that way.”

“It was midnight at new years!”

“Oh? And you just had to kiss Finch Cortes?”

“Why does it matter if I kiss Finch? Or do anything with Finch?” His words come out sharper than he’d intended.

Race grunts and yanks off his trousers, hurrying to get under the covers.

“If you’re gonna be like that, what about you and Spot Conlon?”

Spot Conlon? What about Spot Conlon?”

“If you’re having a go at me for Finch, I oughta have a say about you an’ Spot. You spend more’n half your time in Brooklyn!”

“So I likes the races!”

“Sure.” Albert climbs onto the mattress, arranging himself into the shared space. “Racetrack Higgins.” Lowering his voice so none of the other boys hear, he taunts, harsher than he means, “Could it be cock-sucking Higgins? Or better yet, Conlon-sucking Higgins?”

Race punches at him, nailing his upper arm and rib. “Shut up, shut up.”

“What? It’s the truth, ain’t it?” His words come out bitter, anger covering his very real hurt.

Race stares at him, so angry he’s shaking, before laying down board stiff.

Albert remains sitting for only a moment longer. He hadn’t meant to hurt Race, his jealousy got the better of him and his own confusion and hurt. So he’d kissed Finch. He enjoyed it, sure, and he might like to do it again, but he didn’t love Finch. Not like he loved Racetrack. He’d much rather be kissing Race any day. But if Race was taken, then there was no point. And anyway, Albert would still rather keep Race as his best friend than risk losing him through romance.

They lay there in steaming, brittle silence, and for the first time since Albert moved in, the bed is too small.

*

Albert sells a lot of papers that day. It’s the first paper of the new century; who wouldn’t want a piece?

Finch had told him goodmorning, careful, like it was fragile, and Albert had given him a nod in return. He’s not sure what he feels right now, and Finch seems to understand that he needs some time.

Race had still been angry, and stormed away to Brooklyn. It had given Albert plenty of time to think.

Finch is a boy who has lived many lives in a short amount of time. There’s a lot to him; his past, his present, and his future. He is anxious but cool; smart and kind; playful and serious both. He’s a good person, and Albert does enjoy his company. It might be fun to mess around a bit, see where this leads.

He finds Finch at dinner, clapping the palms of his hands together and not looking into his eyes. “Can we talk?”

“Sure, Red. Why don’t we go upstairs?”

In the bunk room, they sit on opposite beds. Albert still can’t look into his eyes.

“Finch, I—I did like kissin’ ya,” he starts, and Finch nods at him to continue, “But I don’t think—I don’t think I can be kissin’ you any more.”

His face falls, tensing before sliding into a quiet expression. “Okay.”

“It’s not that I don’t like ya, or don’t enjoy your company, or nothin’ like that, I just—” he shakes his hands anxiously. “I’m in love with someone else, and it ain’t fair to you.”

“Oh, Albert.” Finch says it with such tenderness, such understanding, that Albert wants to cry. “It’s okay. I—I do like you, you know, but I won’t make you do anything you don’t want to do.”

“You’re not mad?” Albert asks, genuinely surprised.

“Why would I be mad?”

“I don’t know! I thought, maybe…”

“I’m sad, of course, but not angry. I couldn’t be angry at you for that. You can’t control your own heart like that.”

Albert scoffs. “I wish I could.”

“If you don’t mind my asking—is it Race?” The question is quiet, measured, and very gentle.

Albert sniffs. “Yeah. He’s my best friend, Finch.” He meets Finch’s eyes for the first time. “My best friend. And I know he’s not gonna look at me that way, or—but I can’t stop.”

“It’s okay, Albert,” Finch says again, and reaches to still his hands. “Breathe with me.”

They take a deep breath.

“Better?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, thank you for your honesty. I hope we can still be friends, of course?”

“Of course. I really do want to be your friend,” he says, and he means it.

*

When Race comes back in the evening, Albert drags him by the collar, snarling, onto the fire escape.

“What were you doing in Brooklyn?”

“Sellin’ papes, what’d you think I was doing?” His voice is raised an octave, sharp as needles and brittle as ice.

“I don’t know—should I go ask Spot?”

“Spot? What the fuck does Spot have to do with this?”

“How can you get mad about Finch and then go—” he punches the air to get his point across.

“What I do with Spot is my business! My body is my body!”

“It ain’t fair!” Albert hugs himself against the frigid air.

“Sex is just sex, Albert!”

“Forget it.” He turns away, hurt, uncomfortable.

Race plows onward. “So me an’ Spot’s friends! An’ sure, we occasionally do shit, but it ain’t like we’s in love! We jus’ has a good time, that’s all!”

Albert clenches his fists, willing himself not to cry. Behind him, Race is a hot, tight presence, and without looking, Albert knows he’s yanking off his hat and jamming it back on again, jerking his cigar in and out of his mouth.

He wonders if Spot Conlon knows Race’s nervous ticks. Wonders if those come with the territory of seeing Race come undone, of knowing how to make him feel good. Wonders if Spot can list these things out and recite them, wonders if Spot ever chronicles the color of the morning sky by how well it matches Race’s eyes.

“An’ we haven’t…done anything in a while,” Race mumbles, sounding sad.

Albert takes a slow, steady breath. The fight drains out of him, shoulders slumping and hands uncurling. He turns back around, head bowed. “’m sorry.”

Race cocks his head, pulling the cigar from between his lips slowly. “Aw, Al.” He crosses the space between them and pulls him roughly into a hug. “Spot’s my friend, you know.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“But good god, if I tried to—to go steady with him or whatever, I’d lose my mind. Or kill him. Or both.”

Albert laughs.

“Maybe in another universe we’d date or somethin’, but—” He lets go of Albert. “In this one, we’s just friends.”

Albert snorts. It doesn’t mean he likes the situation any more, but, it’s something. “I ain’t gonna be kissin’ Finch again. Least not for a while.”

Race’s face twists, and then settles back into something quiet. “I didn’t even know you liked guys, Albert.” There are layers there—why didn’t you tell me--and Albert knows he’ll have to explain eventually.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. And I’m sorry I yelled.”

“It’s okay.”

“No, I don’t want to be yelling at you. I need to get better at—at being kinder.”

Race cocks his head, a slight smile on his lips. “You’s already real kind, Al. Don’t you doubt it.”

*

Three weeks into the new year, an epidemic of pneumonia sweeps the lodging house.

Who knows where it starts—it’s not unusual for a few boys to be coughing all through the winter, swiping at runny noses and going hoarse after a day of hawking headlines. And like Finch says, the coughing is useful, in a way—it sells papes and reels in pity pence.

What befalls them in January isn’t like that.

It fells half of them quickly, boys getting fevered and delirious, unable to barely stand. It gets bad enough that Kloppman stops coming upstairs to the bunk rooms, and stays in his room or at the desk. Jack gets them to separate—sets off the upstairs and gets the sick boys to stay there and the healthy ones to sleep in the lower bunk room. At night, when Albert tries to sleep, he hears the deep, rattling coughs, and the creaking of restless bedsprings sinking through the floor. Jack tells the boys that have homes to stay there—the Jacobs, Elmer, Buttons, and Sniper only come through the selling line now. In the fall, Henry had picked up waiting tables at Jacobi’s during the evening, so he sleeps there, laid out flat on one of the tables. Katherine stays away, too, as do Josephine and Smalls and the other girls. There are no games nights now, no dancing to scratchy gramophone music, not even laughter from the common room. They are all spent and haggard, run ragged from trying to sell enough to cover for their friends. The rainy day jar is dangerously low, used on medicine and soup and crackers.

Crutchie goes down, like Albert knew he would. He stubbornly keeps selling, insisting he’s fine, he’s fine, don’t worry about him. A few days of this, and Albert is with him when he hobbles out of bed in the morning, leaning heavily on his crutch. He coughs so hard he doubles over, losing his balance and tumbling down. Albert and Romeo leap for him, catching him at the shoulders and under the arms.

He shakes his head, pale and miserable. “I’m fine, just gimme a minute.”

Romeo and Albert trade a look over his head. They start helping him to the door, ready to help him up the stairs to the sickroom.

Jack appears in the doorway, and his face darkens. “Crutchie. You with me?”

Crutchie nods, still leaning on Albert. “Yeah, just—” He breaks into a fit of coughs, clinging to Albert to stay upright.

Jack crosses to them in two steps, and scoops him up like a baby. He’s gone and up the stairs in an instant.

Albert looks to Romeo. “Think we’d best not mention to the boys that Jack carried him.”

Romeo nods, looking pale. “Sure.”

Just the day before, Mush had come back from selling, thrown up, and walked immediately up to the sick room. Henry had swung by with a pot of hot soup, and Specs had run to the dispensary (again) to get whatever free medicine they were offering.

Though it goes unsaid, there is the lingering thought in all their minds that this might be the time, this might be the thing that does them in. People die. It’s part of life, especially for the lowest of the low. Albert hates it, hates it so much it burns inside him. He acts angry, but what he really is, is afraid.

In the selling line, the ragged crew huddle deeper into coats and scarves, breath coming in puffs. Jack brings up the rear, frowning and hunched. Race stands behind Albert, anxiously chewing a cigar.

“What a pitiful sight!” Morris Delancy shouts. “Looking especially awful today.” There are murmers of discontent, but no one bothers to fight back. They are all too tired, saving their energy for better things. Race shifts a bit, removes and replaces his cigar, but that is all. “Where’s the cripple?” Morris jeers. “He finally kick the bucket?”

Race yanks the cigar from his mouth and leaps at Morris, snarling like a dog. “Shut ya mouth, you fuck.”

Jack and Albert pull him back a hand on either shoulder. Race shrugs them off, but brushes his hand against Albert’s.

Momentarily deterred, Morris leers at them. “Kelly, call off ya mutt.”

“You really want to go?” Jack growls, eyes snapping and dark.

“Wouldn’t be any fun, with such an unfair advantage.”

Oscar steps up beside him, cracking his knuckles.

Albert notices the circles around his eyes, the raspiness of his voice, and thinks, shit. “Ya wanna fight, boys?” he snaps. “Me ‘n Race’ll take you right here. Right now.”

“No,” Jack mutters at them.

Oscar’s eyes light up. “Name a place and time, and I’ll be there. Just give me some time to polish my brass knuckles.”

“Are you really saying you can’t beat us without ya toys?” Race taunts. “Some fighter you are.” He slaps his money on the box. “Fifty papes.”

Weisel counts them out, spectating the posturing with a nasty look on his face.

“We can take you anytime,” Oscar says. “Make your bones crack between our hands.”

“I’d like to see you try!” Race sticks out his tongue like a small child.

“Fifty,” Albert says, sliding his hand over the box and making good use of the distraction to not pay. He’ll put it all in the rainy day jar.

Papes safely in hand, he pushes at Race’s shoulder. “Let’s go. Leave these idiots to smell their own farts in peace.”

Race agrees, shouldering his bag higher. They wait for Jack to make it through, face shadowed by the cares of too many.

“Thanks, boys,” he croaks, and coughs, breath fogging.

“Jack, shouldn’t you’s be careful? Can’t have you getting’ sick, too.”

“I’s fine,” he grunts, and hurries away.

Albert and Race share a look, and carry on with their day.

*

They’re right, of course. Three days later, Jack is barely standing, trying to hustle boys into coats and hats, but white-knuckling a chair.

“Jack, you’s looking’ like hell,” Race says. “You got’s a fever?” He reaches to feel Jack’s head, but is slapped away.

“’m fine,” Jack mumbles.

“No, you ain’t!” Race straightens, eyes flashing. “You is damn sick, Jack Kelly, and you need ta rest!”

Mush, newly recovered from his fever, waves a weak hand. “Don’t fight it Jack, it don’t help.”

“You stay out of this!” Race snaps, and Mush retreats. Romeo pats his shoulder, and they leave for the selling line.

“Keep ya nose out it, Racer,” Jack grumbles, fighting off a cough. He gives in, barking into his elbow.

“Ya hear that? That’s the sound of death coming for you.” Race crosses his arms.

Jack glares at him, unable to respond. Race cocks a brow.

“What about you, huh? You gonna keep selling?”

“Course I am! I’s fine, ain’t I?”

More glaring, more crossed arms. More muffled coughing.

“You keep trying not to cough and you’s gonna break a rib.”

Jack rolls his eyes. “Cracked ‘em before, it didn’t hurt me.”

“Jack,” Race says softly. He reaches slowly for Jack’s right arm. “How’s ya shoulder?”

Jack flinches when he makes contact, but otherwise raises no protest. “It’s fine.”

Race clenches his jaw, and they have an unspoken conversation with their eyes. Finally, Jack seems to win the standoff, because Race drops his hand and shoves his cigar in his mouth. “Fine, but don’t blame me when you’s aching with a fever.”

And Race is right. When Jack comes back that night, he’s fevered and shaking, and Race badgers him up the stairs and into the sick room.

When he comes back down, he sits across from Albert, blowing air out his cheeks. “We need to get a doctor.” He counts out the last of their rainy day jar, sighing when he knows it’s not enough. “We’ll just have to…sell harder,” he comments, and starts coughing.

“Race. Race.” Albert reaches for him, but Race puts up a hand. “Quit ya yappin’, I’s fine. We sell tomorrow, a’ight? And then we get a doctor.” When he looks up at Albert, his eyes look glassy.

“Alright, Race,” Albert says. “Let’s go to bed.”

They sell the next day, and Race shouts and shouts, trying to sell a hundred papes—twice his usual. With Jack gone, it’s fallen to him to lead, and he takes it seriously, working three times as hard as normal. He drags himself to bed at the end of the day, muffling his coughs into his arm, but Albert doesn’t miss the way his whole body shudders with each one.

In the morning, Race is hot to the touch, but he stubbornly goes to sell, despite Albert’s protesting. Dread pools in his stomach. If Race and Jack are both down—and Crutchie—then they’re well and truly sunk.

Albert heads back to the lodging house between selling shifts, pouring all his spare change into the jar. It still will not be enough for a doctor.

Specs bursts in, dragging Race with him. “Albert—Albert! He collapsed, help me—”

“Damn it, Race,” Albert hisses, scooping an arm under his shoulders.

His eyes are too bright, skin hot, the tell-tale bloom of fever high on his cheeks. Race had pushed and pushed, staying strong for Crutchie, staying strong for Jack, stepping up as leader, and it had been too much.

He coughs, bone-shaking whoops, that bend him double. “Albert?” he rasps, eyes unfocused and drifting.

“Yeah, ok, ok, Race, let’s go.”

Race shakes his head, groaning, pawing at his chest. “Hurts. Can’t breathe.”

And Albert does the only thing he can think to do—he scoops Race up in his arms and carries him. It’s a heavy load, and Race is never still, long limbs moving like a turtle on it’s back. He keeps mumbling, half-formed words getting lost in croaks and groans.

Albert manages the stairs, and lays Race on the first empty bed—next to Crutchie, midway in the room. He wrestles off Race’s coat and hat, pulling the blanket over him. He reaches for the shoes, but Race kicks out at him, nailing him in the elbow.

“Ow! Race—please.” He looks at his friend’s pale, thin face, damp curls clinging to his forehead. “Please,” he repeats, quiet, desperate, not sure what he’s asking for.

Race tries to push himself up on his elbows, but falls back on the bed. “Albert,” he’s mumbling now, voice barely more than a croak, “Al, Albert, Al, Al,” repeating it like it’s the only word he knows.

“Shh, I’m here, Race. I’m here.” He grabs Race’s sweaty palm, wrapping his hand around limp, hot fingers. “I’m here, Tony. I’m here.” Tears blur his vision and he presses his forehead to the mattress. “I’m here,” he whispers again.

Hot fingers twitch under his own. “Al?”

“Yeah?” Al looks back up, reaching to smooth Race’s sweaty curls off his forehead.

Eyes still shiny, Race blinks at him, breathing out in a rattle. “Al?” he croaks again.

“I’m right here, Race. I’m right here. Just keep breathing for me, okay?”

Race nods, hacking a powerful cough into the crook of his elbow. His hand tightens on Albert’s, squeezing through the shaking reverbs of the cough. When the fit passes, he turns to Albert again, just running his eyes over every aspect of his face, lips moving without sound.

Albert has no idea what’s going through his head, what thoughts have caused him to want Al so desperately in this moment. He needs to go sell again, and needs to count their funds, fetch a doctor, but he still says.

He’ll stay here as long as he’s needed, as long as he’s allowed.

He rubs his thumb over Race’s hand, slow and steady. Eventually, Race’s eyes droop, and he drifts off, rattle still in his throat.

Just as he is about to leave, Crutchie snags his wrist.

“Hey Crutchie, how you feelin’?”

“Okay,” Crutchie croaks, and coughs weakly. “Race—is he?”

“He’s sick, too. And Jack. You’s gotta rest, Crutchie, gotta get well.”

Crutchie nods, tired. “I think we’s need a doctor, Albert.”

“I know, we’s—we’s gonna get one.”

“How we gonna—gonna—” a string of coughing cuts him off.

“We’ll find a way, Crutchie. Don’t worry.” Albert runs a hand over Crutchie’s tussled hair, and hurries out. He doesn’t know how they’ll afford a doctor, especially one so immediately, for so many.

When he gets downstairs, he finds Finch in the dining room.

“Alright?” Finch asks, gentle.

“Fine.” Albert grabs the jar of coins, spills it on the table. Without asking, Finch scrapes half of them to himself and starts counting. When they finish, Finch adds the sums together.

It’s not even close to enough.

Albert buries his hands in his hair, groaning.

Finch reaches out to him, aborts the motion. “It’s gonna be okay, Red.”

Albert looks up. “Thanks, Finch. You’s a—good egg.” He pulls his cap on, shrugs into his coat. “I’m gonna go talk to the nuns. Maybe they can help us.”

Finch nods. “Specs went back to the dispensary. I’m gonna see if Henry can bring us more soup.”

With a parting nod, they head out the door.

*

Albert hasn’t been inside a church in a long time. He stands at the door, cap in his hands. “Hello?” he calls into the echoing silence.

There is a whisper of heavy skirts, and a nun appears from some cranny. “Can I help ye?” she says in a rolling brogue.

“I need Sister O’Doyle,” Albert says, feeling his own vowels curve in ways they hadn’t in a long time.

The nun frowns down her nose at him. “And what would ye be wanting wi’ her?”

“I need some help, please, just let me see her!”

The nun takes in his patched and frozen appearance, from the hole in the toe of his boot to the coat from the sisters’ very own hand-outs. “Sister O’Doyle’s not here. She’s been moved to another convent. If that’s all, I think you’d better go.”

“I need help! Thought you’s preached compassion!” His words fill the quiet sanctuary and the nun hurries to shush him and push him out.

“Hush! There are people praying in respect for the Lord! Now get on w’ye!”

“Please—medicine, money, something!”

“If you need a doctor, go to a hospital. The Lord is the physician of the soul.” She gets him out the door.

“Please!” Albert shouts, near to tears.

The door shuts.

Well.

Even the gods above have forsaken him.

He does the last thing he’d ever wanted to do, and turns his feet toward Brooklyn.

*

It is a four hour walk to Brooklyn. His toes are near frozen when he gets to the door of the Brooklyn lodging house, and the wind cuts right through his coat.

He stands in the doorstep for a moment, then raises a cold hand, and knocks on the door.

His knuckles split at the contact, skin dry and brittle from being exposed for so long. Albert sucks the blood off his knuckle as the door opens.

A boy and a girl stand in the doorway, the boy big and broad and the girl with a large birthmark over her eye.

They look him up and down.

“Whaddaya want, Manhattan?” the girl asks.

“I needs to see Spot Conlon.”

“Is this union business? You here for Kelly?”

“No. I’s here on my own. Just lemme talk to Spot.” He tries to slide between them into the lodging house, but the silent one stops him with a heavy hand on the shoulder.

“Listen here, punk, you don’t come in until we says you come in. Savvy?” The girl is the one still talking, voice and eyes sharp.

Albert would call himself many things. Strong, determined, brave. Smart is not one of them. So when he throws the first punch, he realizes it’s a bad idea. Unfortunately, he only realizes it’s a bad idea as his fist connects with the boy’s nose with a crack.

His head snaps back, blood spurting. The girl punches Albert in the face, and Albert slaps her across the cheek. He doesn’t like hitting girls, but this is Brooklyn. He’d be okay, one on one. Albert’s a fighter. But with these odds…

Big and Silent gets him pinned against the wall and Birthmark is getting ready to give him a proper soaking when someone shouts from the lodging house.

“Hotshot! Spades! Stop!”

Hotshot and Spades fall back immediately.

Spot Conlon stands in the doorway, arms crossed. He’s every bit as short as Albert remembers, white splotches dotting his arms, that single white streak in his otherwise dark hair. “What’s going on?”

“Manhattan’s on our turf.”

“Is he causing trouble?”

Albert yanks on his coat to straighten it, runs a hand under his nose to check for blood. “I just wanted to talk to you.”

Spot ignores him.

Spades motions at Albert. “He wanted to talk to you. Not here from Kelly.”

Spot finally looks at Albert. “You’s got a death wish?”

Albert shakes his head. “I needs your help, Spot.”

Spot waves a hand as if to say, go on.

“Manhattan’s sick. Sick real bad. We needs a doctor and—and we can’t pay for one.”

“This is the second time Manhattan has come crawling to me for help. Why should my boys go hungry just cause Manhattan ain’t tough enough to beat a cold?”

“For the sake of the union?” he tries.

Spot scoffs, and Hotshot’s heavy hand presses on Albert’s shoulder.

“For the sake of Race!” he almost shouts it, but it sounds more like a sob.

This gives Spot pause. “Racer’s sick?” he asks, softer than Albert’s heard yet.

He nods.

Spot reaches up and grabs a fistful of Albert’s collar and yanks him into the lodging house. He practically drags him up the stairs to a private bedroom. He directs Albert to sit in a chair and remains standing. This leaves him at approximately eye-level with Albert. It’s uncomfortable.

“Start talking.”

Albert explains, talks about the littles going down, how the older boys seemed to be able to fight it off, how Crutchie was sick and not recovering, how Jack was sick and likely had been pretending not to be sick for a while, and finally, how Race had collapsed today.

“Sounds bad,” Spot says, quiet, but still gruff. “Albert—that’s your name, ain’t it?”

“Yeah.”

“Albert, I can’t go giving my boys’ funds just because Manhattan can’t keep their shit together. It ain’t fair to them, and it’d be a poor move on my part.”

Albert’s heart sinks, and he prepares to leave.

“Sit down, I ain’t done!”

He settles back in his chair.

“Howeva, I can’t just sit by and let my best friend die cause I’m a heartless bastard.” Spot digs around under his bed for a minute, and emerges with a handful of quarters. “That won’t cover all of it, but it should help.”

Albert exhales, unsure whether to laugh or cry. He cups his hands to receive the coins, says, “Thank you. Goddamn, thank you.

“You’s welcome.” There’s no hint of sarcasm or meanness in his words. “Tell Race he’s a weak-ass bitch, getting sick.”

“Sure. I owe you, Spot. You ever need anything, I’d do it.”

“How’s about moving to Brooklyn? Pay off your debt that way.”

Albert falters.

Spot breaks into raucous laughter. “I’m just yanking ya chain. Get outta here.” He opens the door like a gentleman.

“Thanks again, Spot.” He pauses in the doorframe. “Hey—how’d you know my name?”

Spot shrugs. “Racer never shuts up about you.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.” His face looks oddly soft for a moment, then reverts to the hard locked jaw. “Get offa my turf, Manhattan.”

Albert leaves Brooklyn with three things: one, the money needed to pay the doctor. He will be forever grateful.

Two, a deep respect for Spot Conlon. Spot’s not scary because he fights, or because he’s got biceps the size of ham hocks. He’s scary because he’s a damn good leader, and all the other newsies know it.

And three—Albert leaves with hope.

*

The doctor tells them that most of the newsies will recover within a week or so of getting sick. They’ll have shortness of breath and some exhaustion, but they’ll be okay. Jack, Crutchie, and Race (the worst cases), he gives a bitter powder that helps relieve pain and break fever. For them, it will be some time before they’re all the way rested. Give them hot liquids and good food, and they’ll be fine.

When he leaves, they still have a few cents left over to buy some hot soup from Jacobi’s.

Jack is the first one to get up, to no one’s surprise. He is still hunched and wheezing when he goes out selling again, but he won’t listen to anyone about resting more and insists he needs to get going. Crutchie gets up next, mostly because he’s stubborn, and he goes right back to smiling and joking like nothing had ever happened. It makes Albert wonder how much pain he’s in all the time, if the sore lungs don’t bother him at all.

Race takes longer to heal—perhaps because of how stressed he’d been, or how high his fever was, but he just takes longer. When he finally rises, he is pale and thin like a ghost, his eyes sunk in his head. He first comes down to the common room, wrapped in a blanket, leaning on the railing of the stairs.

“Race!” Jack says, looking up from the card game he’s playing with the littles.

Race coughs, waves hello. Albert moves to help him, get whatever he needs, but Race just sort of motions at him and drifts toward the couch. Finch and Romeo clear out, so Race has plenty of room, and Albert drops to the ground by his feet. He wraps an arm around Race’s ankles and legs, resting his hand on the tops of his shoes. He doesn’t say much, just coughs from time to time, smiling faintly at the various antics of the newsies.

The next day, he insists he go selling, and Albert partners with him, carrying his heavy papes as needed. Race is far too prideful to let the other boys see how weak he’s truly gotten, but Albert hears him wheezing and takes the papes as soon as they’re out of sight of the other boys.

“Forget how strong you’s are, sometimes,” Race croaks.

“Only got that way to hold you back from doin’ somthin’ idiotic,” he quips, and smiles at Race’s chuckle.

After the morning paper, Race looks ready to drop, so Al directs him back to bed with much hoarse complaining. It goes like that for a couple days—sell in the morning, rest in the afternoon, drift around the common room after dinner like a ghost. And slowly, Race starts to improve.

The lodging house rearranges itself again, boys returning to their preferred beds. Jack delivers Sarah the largest load of laundry she’s seen—sheets that need a good hot soaking to get them washed of the sickness. Buttons and Elmer and Henry return to the house for playtimes and meals, the girls start visiting again. Soon, the only sign they were ever sick is the lingering wheeze in Race’s lungs he hears every night when they go to bed.

One night, Albert lies awake, trying to not move and disturb Race. After the third time he’s shifted his legs or moved his head, Race whispers, “Lie still, won’tcha, or roll over, but get comfortable, Jesus.”

Albert rolls onto his side to face him, tangling their legs together. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. You’s allowed to take up space.” Albert scoots closer, tossing his arm over Race’s waist. Beneath the covers, Race’s shoe kicks Albert’s toe.

“Ouch!”

“Sorry.”

“Why you’s wearin’ them anyways?” It’s a rhetorical question, but Race shifts a little and starts to speak.

“When I was in the refuge—the time in the winter, you know—I.” He stops. Licks his lips. Wheezes a breath or two.

Albert swallows. Race never talks about his time in the refuge. Albert would consider himself Race’s best friend. But even he hasn’t heard him ever talk about his two stints in the refuge. One was when he was little, barely Les’ age. One was when he was older—he says he was fifteen, but with Race that could mean a span of a few years.

“Yeah?” he whispers, and he starts again.

“I was supposed ta be there f’r six months. A whole half year. I’d got caught f’r thieving offa some old lady and…it don’t matter, but six months is a long time. A hell of a long time. Jack was there—his last time there. We was bunkmates, on the top. I slept with his stinky feet in my face f’r longer than I care to ‘member.” He chuckles, crackling and dry. “It was winter, and they took our shoes, to keep us from running. Figured the cold an’ the danger of steppin on somethin’ would keep us down. It was so cold, Al. So cold.” He pushes closer, perhaps fleeing the memory of that bitter cold. “Jack and I—we slept with our heads at either end. And he’d take my cold feet and wrap his hands around ‘em. Didn’t matter how dirty or smelly or bloody. He’d wrap ‘em up, warm ‘em up. Probly the only reason I didn’t lose a toe to frostbite. The kid a bed over—he did. Turned black and fell right off.” He shudders. “And now I—I can’t take off my shoes, Al. Any time I do, I’m right back there, cold and shaking and scared.” He ducks his head down, almost under Al’s chin. “Take ‘em off to wash, o’course, but—”

“It’s okay.” Albert pets over the back of his head. “Thank you for telling me.”

“Yeah.” Race shifts around a bit, tugs on the back of Al’s neck. He presses a kiss to his forehead, tender, slow. Al’s breath catches as Race tangles his fingers in the hair at the back of his neck. “You’s my best friend, you know that?”

Albert nods. Such tenderness is rare, and he drinks in every bit of it, stores it away somewhere safe. “And you’s mine.”

Race smiles sleepily. “Yeah. Yeah, I know.”

They lie there, tangled together in the dark, facing one another on the narrow bed. Albert feels they’re on the edge of something, something he can’t quite grasp. Right now, it doesn’t matter. Race is well, and safe, and they are home, together.

Chapter Text

In the spring, Race falls in love with Albert. This is not strictly true, of course, because Race has been in love with Albert for quite some time now, and just didn’t know how to go about it.

It happens like this: even when they don’t need to be sharing a bed anymore, they still do. Race still goes to Brooklyn at least twice a week to sell, but he stops spending the night. Instead, he comes home, to Albert. And though there are no words yet said, Albert can’t help but feel that both of them are standing right on the edge of something, just waiting to take the first step, and Albert keeps looking for Race to make the first move so that he can follow—because he’ll always follow Race, without question—but maybe this is different.

So he goes to visit Eilish. He goes to her apartment, hair combed beneath his hat and his shirt buttoned under his vest, like Davey wears it. (Davey always manages to look respectable, even when he’s covered in dust and hawking headlines like a pro.)

Eilish opens the door at his knock, smile bright as she ushers him in. Her hair is tied back with the ribbon he gave her at Christmas, and she looks well-rested and well-fed. Only one of her roomates is home, lounging on the pull-out couch. The other is on a date with a fella, Eilish says, and probably won’t be home for a while.

Eilish makes them tea and they sit at the kitchen table and he pesters her for stories from the theatre. She has a good one about one of the girl’s shoes breaking mid-dance, causing a dramatic tumble and a good laugh. Albert tells her about a prank he and Race had played on poor Mush—moving his mattress onto the roof, much to the confusion of Jack and Crutchie. He asks her about Henry, the boy she’d been seeing, and she smiles and says it’s all going very well.

And then she returns the question. “Anyone for you? You’re old enough now that I can ask.”

Albert shifts in his chair. “That’s kinda why I came to visit. You see, there is someone.”

“Oh?” Her face has gone soft.

“Yeah—but, you’s gotta promise me it won’t change nothin’.”

“I promise,” she says firmly, and leans forward.

Albert nods, working the words over his tongue before saying them. “It’s Race,” he finally manages, and takes a great, shuddering breath.

Eilish tilts her head sideways, and says, “Oh. That does complicate things.”

Shit. Albert panics, reaching for his hat and scrambling to go.

“No! Albert, wait! I’m not—I wouldn’t—sit down!”

He sits.

“I only meant it’s complicated to love your best friend like that. Unless—does he know?”

He shakes his head.

“Ah. That is hard. Do you want him to know?”

Albert sighs and explains the whole situation as best he can. He’d like Race to know, and Race likes men, but Albert just doesn’t know how to go about it.

Eilish chews on her bottom lip. “I seems to me that you should just tell him, Albie. You’ll never get anywhere if you don’t.”

Albert folds into himself, shoulders hunched. “What if he hates me?”

Placing her hand on his, she says, “He won’t. I haven’t seen Race in years, and I know. He won’t hate you, Albert. He never could.”

He suddenly finds himself near to tears, ducking his head and throat sore. Eilish presses gently on his hand. “It’s okay, Albie. It’s okay.”

“I just—I’m so scared.”

“It’s okay to be scared. It’s okay to feel things.”

He swallows hard, sniffing. “Da never thought so.”

“Fuck. Da.”

Albert blinks. Eilish never swears.

“He never learned how, and mom did all his feeling for him and—well. Anyway.” She runs her hand through her hair, displacing the ribbon. She pulls it out and reties it, saying, “You’re a better man than him. And I just need you to know that.”

“I know,” he says. “Race tells me so.”

“When this is all figured out, you should bring him for dinner, okay?”

He leans back in his chair. “Okay.”

When he goes, he feels lighter, and happier, too. He starts thinking about the best way to tell Race he loves him. It’s got to be perfect, the right set of words at the right time. Best not to tell him just yet.

*

When the lodging house gets too loud, Albert likes to sit on the fire escape or the front steps. The fire escape is his and Race’s place, so he goes to the front steps alone, and sits in the cooling evening.

Finch comes to join him, just sitting beside him companionably, talking about their days and telling jokes. Albert has Finch shoot his slingshot at different objects or people across the street, and he hits the target every time, nailing light posts, doorframes, and knocking the hat off a very confused pedestrian.

“Want to see a trick?” he asks. Before Albert can properly respond, he bends himself in half, hands on the ground, and slowly raises his legs into the air. He can’t straighten them, just lets them dangle over his head, knees bent. He walks on his hands, just enough to keep his balance. His cap slides off, letting his curls fall downward.

Race leans out the door. “Hey! What’s goin’ on out here?” He’s grinning, silly.

Finch drops and tumbles upright, grinning.

“We’s just playin’,” Albert says. “Wanna join?”

Race takes off his cap, tosses it in the air, catches it behind his back, and returns it to his head. At their sarcastic applause, he bows, saying, “Thank you, thank you!” Then he gets serious again. “Actually, I was wondrin’, have you’s seen Checker?”

Albert glances as Finch, and they both shake their heads no.

Race frowns. “Haven’t seen him all day. D’ya know who’s partnered with ‘im?”

Again, no.

“Hm. He’s probably fine…” Race bites his lip and straightens his cap before going back inside.

Finch stands, brushing off his pants. “I’ll go look around a bit for Checker. Albert, think you can stand getting beat in chess later?”

Albert sticks out his tongue. “We both know I’ll win.”

Finch laughs before strolling away, whistling like a bird.

Albert thinks about where Checker might have gone. The refuge is closed, but that doesn’t mean other things can’t happen to children alone in the city. He heads back inside, looking for Race. He finds him in the dining room, along with Jack, Crutchie, and Specs.

Race comes back up to him, pulling his cigar in and out of his mouth. “Checker ain’t here.”

Albert frowns. Race looks so stressed, face all wrinkled, fidgeting.

“Where’s he normally go?”

Race runs a hand through his hair. “I don’t know, I don’t partner with ‘im!”

“Jojo?” suggests Albert.

Jojo doesn’t know either, and Race looks incredibly stressed. He turns to Jack, who is looking at a battered map of the city. “I told ya we needed a better way to keep track of ‘em!”

Jack flinches. “Will ya shut up, I’s tryin to remember where he sold!”

Race huffs, crossing his arms. “Yeah, there’s smoke comin’ outta your ears.”

“Race, would ya shut up! I’s doing my best!”

Race glares at him. On the other side of Jack, Crutchie motions for him to shut up. Jack is doing his best, but there’s a lot of pressure on him. He’s the union leader, Pulitzer’s cartoonist, and has to be in charge of the Manhattan newsies. It’s a lot of pressure for one man. He looks so fucking tired.

“Fine,” Race snaps and storms for the door.

Albert hurries after, hands shaking as he runs. He pursues Race down the street, finally catching up, panting. “Hey! It’s not safe out alone.”

Race shoves his hands in his pockets, mumbling around the cigar. “I’s fine.”

“You ain’t fine!”

“It’s no big deal. Jack’s under stress. I just need to find the kid.”

“It ain’t your fault, Racer. Whatever happens, it ain’t your fault.”

Race yanks the brim of his cap lower. “I know.”

Albert is so gone for this boy. He’s in love with his spirit; his bravery; his fierce devotion and care. And Albert feels he just trails after him, honored to be in his presence.

But it is Race that bumps his shoulder into Albert’s, mumbles a, “Thanks f’r comin’ after me,” as they continue on their way.

They peer down alleys and look for any sign of the small boy. They circle around Jacobi’s and the church, and end up back at the distribution gate. It’s locked, of course, but they check the nearby alleys anyway. Nothing.

They head back to the lodging house, dejected.

When they get there, Jack is gone, but Davey has arrived, pacing. It looks as though most of the boys have gone to bed, the common room largely deserted.

“What’s goin’ on, Mouth?” Race asks.

“Jack and Katherine have gone to get Checker.”

“Where is he?”

“Specs saw him being taken into custody by police officers. He ran to get Katherine, and she and Jack are going to act like his parents to get him back.”

“Oh.” Albert and Race trade glances.

“You doin’ okay, Mouth?” Race asks, quiet.

“Yeah, just. Worried for Jack.” He shrugs a little, like he can’t help it.

“Jack’s like a cat—he always lands on his feet,” Race jokes, patting Davey’s shoulder. “He’s gonna be okay, Mouth.”

Albert crosses to Finch and Specs on the couch. “You’s okay?”

Finch nods, and pats the space between them. Albert sits between his friends.

“Thanks for going lookin’,” he says.

Finch shrugs. “We look after each other.”

Specs hums in agreement.

Crutchie comes from the direction of the kitchen, carrying a glass of water, and sits on an apple crate, stretching his leg in front of him. Finch moves to sit by him, and Race plops himself in his place, and Al scratches gently at his head. Davey keeps pacing.

By unspoken agreement, they all stay awake and wait together.

It’s nearly midnight before Jack and Katherine come back, Checker asleep on Jack’s shoulder. Immediately alert, the group peppers them with questions.

Jack shushes them. “Be quiet, you, can’tcha see he’s asleep?”

Race rolls his eyes and takes Checker off Jack’s hands, the transfer awkward as the sleeping boy drapes heavily across their arms. “I’ll put him to bed.”

Albert’s heart swells at the sight of Race carrying the boy quietly up the stairs.

Davey looks at Jack with wide eyes, before wrapping him in a hug. “I though for sure they’d arrest you.”

Jack shrugs. “Kath here played her part good.”

Specs stands beside her, smiling. “We’ll make a newsie of you yet.”

Katherine shrugs modestly. “It helps that I can pay. Doesn’t matter how much I lie as long as I have money to distract them.” She looks around at their crew. “It’s very late. Can someone walk me home?”

Jack nods. “I will. Suppose I owe ya more than that, after what you did tonight.”

“Don’t mention it.” She leans forward and kisses Davey on the cheek. “Pass that on to Sarah for me, alright?”

Davey flushes. “Don’t think it’ll mean the same, coming from me.”

Albert has the sudden feeling he’s intruding. He heads to bed, where Race is waiting for him.

“You’s okay, Racer?”

“Mm-hm. Yeah.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, Al. ‘M sure.” He holds up the sheet for Albert to crawl underneath. “Thanks for sticking with me.”

“Ain’t goin’ nowhere, Race. No matter how angry you is or—or anything.”

“I know.” He shifts a bit so they are comfortably pressed together. “You’s my best friend. Love you,” he whispers, and the words drift over Albert like a warm blanket, like a patch of sun in the wintertime, like the first green buds of spring.

Albert shuts his eyes and thinks for the millionth time how lucky he is to have such a good best friend. Soon, he thinks, soon, I’ll tell him. I just have to wait for the perfect moment. If he’s going to do this, he’s going to do it right.

*

When it happens, they’re on the fire escape, and how perfect is that—the place where they always go, grounds of so many rehashed jokes and familiar conversation—becomes grounds of something entirely, perfectly new.

They’re sitting just a little too close in the cool air, hips and shoulders pressed together, passing a cigar back and forth. In the dimming light, Race’s hair looks like a halo as he tips back his head to laugh at something Albert had said.

It spills out of him, soft and as natural as breathing. “I love you.”

Race goes quiet, tugs at the hem of his jacket. “I love you too, Al. Love you a lot.” He says it casually, like this is any other conversation.

“No, Race, I—I love you.

It hangs in the air between them, their faces only inches apart.

It’s not a dramatic confession, no planned speech or eloquent poetry, but Albert has never spoken truer words.

His heart roars in his ears.

Race blinks, exhales.

And suddenly they are kissing, lips and teeth and hands, their breaths mingling and panting. It is both of their impulsiveness and their passion crashing together in a beautiful explosion.

Albert has thought about kissing Race so many times, he almost wonders if this is real. He’s imagined how it would feel, whether or not Race would taste like his cigars, and if he would grab Albert’s face to have more control. It’s both nothing and everything like he imagined. Race does taste of cigars, but only faintly. Race does grab his face, but he also keeps moving, winding his fingers through Al’s hair, or grabbing fistfuls of shirt. It feels both soft and fierce, mouths bumping and moving and searching.

It’s the first kiss. It’s perfect.

Albert slides his hands up to twine through blond curls, and they both pull back to stare at the other. It’s a moment before they both let out a little giggle, giddy with the high of the moment. Albert pets gently down Race’s cheek and jaw, tracing the curve of his face.

Race shakes his head, struck dumb. In awe, perhaps, or surprise. “All this time—I never even—shit.”

“I—I didn’t know. If I’d known…” he drinks in Race’s expression, files it away like he has so many things before, carefully rearranging his memories from “the boy I love” to “the boy who loves me back.”

“How long?” Race asks, gentle.

“Shit, Race, I—I’ve been in love with you forever.” Race looks sad, apologetic, that Albert had waited so long. “But, really…the strike, I think. That’s when I—I knew I loved you.” He swallows. “When was it for you?” he whispers.

“The fall. When you gave me that fucking rock, I—I just knew, right then, that I loved ya.” He wraps his hands over Al’s, squeezes. “But I think—really—for longer. I just didn’t understand. I just looked up, and—there you were.”

“Why didn’t you say?”

“Why didn’t you?

“I was scared.” Albert looks away. “Figured you didn’t—wouldn’t—”

“Shh.” Race directs his face back around with a gentle hand. “But I do. I do.

They kiss again, high on the fact that they can, that it’s wanted, that it’s real. Race pushes them down, laying on the fire escape, content to just do this, for as long as they want.

“You’re so pretty, Al,” Race mumbles, tracing his fingers over Albert’s cheek. “Your face is nice. And the dimples when you smile? Holy shit, you’re prefect.”

Albert feels himself smile, his lips tingling.

“See that?” Race continues, pressing his thumb into the fold in Albert’s cheek. “Perfect. I love your smile. And, fuck, I love your hair. And your eyes.” He leans in to kiss him again, between each one whispering, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

And Albert can only drink it all in, hands trembling as he grips at Race, whole and overjoyed and in awe, amazed to find his feelings returned so strong, so beautiful, so complete.

*

It’s slower than Albert thought it would be, softer. He had thought that they might be like fireworks; like jumping into cold water; like sliding down a bannister in the middle of the night. Instead, it’s more like inhaling the scent of fresh-printed papes; like swaddling himself in a soft blanket; like biting into a crisp apple. It is quiet and it is gentle and it is sweet.

Albert finds himself changing in little ways; not who he is or what he believes, but finding himself slowing down too. The lodging house is still loud and overwhelming, but he finds Race, butting his head into his shoulder to show affection. Race pats his whole face with a hand in return, and Albert settles a bit, breathes easier. He gets nervous and flaps his hands; Race flaps his hands back with a twinkle in his eye, and Albert does not feel alone. He does not resent the time Race spends in Brooklyn, because he knows, without fear or doubt, that Race will come home to him.

And Race—Race is changing, a little, so subtly Al almost doesn’t notice. He still goes to Brooklyn and still cracks jokes, but he seems to settle into himself, more. He curbs his jokes before they get sharp and hurtful, or at least has the good grace to be aware. There’s less franticness in his silliness, more genuine belly laughter. He stops drinking, doesn’t gamble for alcohol and bring it home. He still goes gambling, but never for alcohol. Albert doesn’t think he’s seen him drink since New Years.

He never asks Race about it, but he knows—it’s for him.

Race kisses him every morning when they wake up, and pulls him into an alley to kiss him goodbye before heading to Brooklyn. At night, they go to the fire escape and share a cigar and kiss, just kiss, losing themselves in the sensations, laughing into one another’s mouths, and finding that kissing is enough.

Albert had thought that Race would want to make a show of it—dip and kiss him in the common room in front of all their friends, but he doesn’t. This is not a joke. This is not for show.

Instead it’s different. They are standing in the selling line when Albert looks over at Race and sees the expression on his face. Race is standing there, leaning on a pole, and staring at Albert. There is no trace of ire on his face, no sense that this will turn into a joke. He’s just looking, open and unabashed and deep.

Albert’s heart quivers. It’s indecent, it what it is, and Race has never been able to hide a single emotion in his life. He reaches out and steals the cigar, winking. Race stops looking so openly for a moment. It’s good. It’s comfortable.

That night, when Albert kisses him on the fire escape, he remembers the way he looked that morning, so full of love and want. He kisses harder, nipping at Race’s lip and gripping into his shirt. He finds himself wanting a little more—something he’s never tried before—something he’s never dared. He wouldn’t know how to ask for it if he tried, so he just pours as much intensity into the kissing as he can.

Race’s fingers ghost at his waistband, fumble at the button.

Albert breaks away, stammering, “I—I—I’ve never—”

Race is viewing at him intently, eyes dark and mouth parted. “You sure? Because I have.”

For a moment, Albert considers being bitter about that, spitting out Spot’s name, but then he doesn’t. It doesn’t matter now, and Race is faithful. What’s in the past is in the past, what’s now is now. “I’ve just never—only with my hand,” he admits, shifting his weight on his hips.

Race chuckles. “This’s better. We won’t do anything you don’t want,” and then he kisses him again, laying them back on the fire escape and situating his weight between Albert’s legs and on his torso. Albert can feel him, through their pants, and he arcs upward, chasing a friction he didn’t know existed.

It happens rather quickly, Race still kissing him, getting a hand between them and undoing pants and working them together. He rucks up Albert’s shirt, pressing it out of the way, pressing a palm flat against his stomach, and still kissing him, sloppy and wet and without rhythm.

Albert grips tight into Race’s upper arms, everything white-hot and fuzzy. He’s overwhelmed and immersed in something so good, and suddenly his mind goes white, his body shuddering under Race and engulfed in pleasure.

Race is still kissing him, breath hitching as he continues to grind. Albert has the presence of mind to reach down and help, even though it feels backward and awkward. In a moment, Race presses his face into Albert’s neck and lets out a long groan, loud enough that Al has a fleeting worry that the other boys would hear. He collapses onto Albert’s chest, panting breaths tickling. Al kisses his tangled curls, runs a hand down his back.

Race rolls off him, eyes shut, panting. “That went faster than I meant,” he mumbles. “Can be better—will be better—”

“It was good.” Albert silences him with a kiss. “But can we please clean me, I hate this texture.”

Race looks around for a handkerchief or bandana, but neither of them have one. He shrugs, and pulls his shirt over his head.

“Gross, Race.”

“I’ll wash it in the morning.” Wiping tenderly over Al’s stomach and chest, he says, “There’s a lot more we can do. Stuff that feels real good. But not here.” He tips his head toward the window. He presses a single kiss just below Al’s navel, drawing a stifled giggle.

Together they smooth rumpled trousers and shirts to be presentable enough to sneak back inside, to their shared bed.

Albert kisses Race goodnight softly, curling together in the small space. “Love you,” he whispers.

“So much,” Race whispers back, wrapping his arms around him and pulling him close.

*

March gives leave to April with a wet spell. It rains every day for a week, driving the newsies to seek shelter for selling, and those that have been sleeping outside to stay at the lodging house. Race and Albert spend an afternoon leaning together under the shelter of the awning of a church.

There’s something peaceful about the rain when you aren’t trapped in it, Albert notes. He leans closer to Race, mindful of the passerby. “Eilish wants us to come to dinner sometime,” he murmurs, rain pattering on the sidewalk.

“Always loved her,” Race notes. “How’s ya brothers? Seen ‘em lately?”

“No, not since—not since December.”

Race hums, rocking into Albert a bit. Thunder rolls, high up and far away. “You should see ‘em. They’s ya family, after all.”

“What do you care about family?”

Race frowns. “I’s got a family. I’s got Jack an’ Crutchie an’ Romeo an’ Mush an’ Davey an’ all the boys. And you. I’s got you.” He punches Albert’s shoulder playfully. “So don’t ask me what I care about family.”

“Sorry.”

“I don’t mean you’s gotta stay—I don’t want that! Jus’, tell ‘em hi, maybe.”

Albert turns that in his mind. Telling them hi. He wants to see Brendan again, wants to see if he’s ok, and maybe Cormac, too. He turns his face into Race’s shoulder. “M’da…”

Race grips his knee, squeezing gently. “I’ll come with ya if ya want.”

“You don’t have to do that,” he says instantly. If his father were to somehow hurt Race—if his father were to find out—

Race grabs his chin, a gesture far to intimate for where they are. He does not care. “I will if you want me to. Because I care about you.” His voice cracks a bit on the last word, and Albert wants to kiss him so deeply. And he will, later.

“Ok,” he says. “Ok.”

So he goes a few days later, once the rain has stopped and the streets have dried, and once his courage has found it’s way into his chest. Race offers, but he doesn’t come. Albert turned him down. This is something he has to do alone.

The walk up the stairs to his old apartment is slow, torturous. For the first time he notices the cracks in the steps, the stains on the ground, the collected garbage in the corners. He knocks on the door. His key is long gone, and any desire to ever need it again, with it.

His father opens the door, grizzled, foggy-eyed. “What’ya want?” he snaps, lurching against the doorframe.

Albert takes a deep, steadying breath. “Are Brendan and Cormac here?”

“Naw.” His father peers at him, coughs. “Albert?”

“Yeah, s’me.”

His father’s eyes fill with tears and he reaches out with a shaking hand.

Albert flinches and steps back.

His father drops his hand. Sniffs, like a child with a snotty nose. “Brendan and Cormac left me.”

“Where? Where’d they go?”

“They left me—like Eilish and you and ya Ma.”

Albert looks at him, this hunched shadow that was once a man, crying in the doorway. He’d always told his sons not to cry.

Albert is not angry. Maybe in anther time he would have been. But now, he only feels pity, and a removed disgust.

This is what his childhood terror has become: a helpless whining beggar.

“Where’d they go, Da?” he repeats.

“To some boarding house, I don’t know.”

“Alright. Thanks.” Albert steps back. His father makes no move to stop him.

He just leaves, walks away, and doesn’t look back.

Maybe some day he will mourn, some day he will be sorrowful, or some day he might forgive. But now, he steps back, and washes his hands of it.

It takes him some time to find his brothers, but with perseverance and a little help from Eilish he finds their boarding house. They share a room, split the rent. Brendan looks healthier, happier, and Cormac even cracks a smile.

Race was right. It was good to see them.

When he gets back the night he’d seen them, Race pushes him into the abandoned kitchen and kisses him against the door. “Proud of you,” he whispers, “For all of it.”

They haven’t told the boys yet, choosing instead to sneak about corners and muffle the noises and fumble into the darkened bunkroom after everyone is asleep. Maybe they’re afraid they’ll jinx it, or that having the bawdiest group of boys known to man teasing them will get annoying. But they are not afraid of what anyone would say.

It’s just not time yet.

*

Race invites Albert along to poker night, saying he’d like him to meet Spot. Albert doesn’t tell him about his adventure over the bridge during the horrible pneumonia episode; and he doesn’t feel the need. He goes with Race, listening to him talk about how to beat Spot; who’s bets to trust and whose not to trust; who’s terrible at bluffing.

They sit around the round table—Spot, Race, Spades, Rafaela, and others Albert doesn’t know. The bet on what they have—pocket change, spare cigars, a package of dried fruit, trinkets they’d found in the streets. Race smack-talks the other players, jabbing and jeering with a crooked smile. Spot’s face is an emotionless mask, and Rafaela looks truly fearsome. Albert is shit at poker, so he spectates and drapes himself over Race and whispers awful advice.

And a one or two other things, too.

Halfway through the game, Race slides a hand all the way up Albert’s thigh and turns to whisper in his ear, “Keep that up and I’ll make you regret it.” He grins, winks, and turns back to his cards like everything is normal.

Albert feels himself flush, his skin probably the color of his hair.

Across the table, one of the boys stares at them with open disgust.

The thrill drains out of him, and he shifts in his seat, flapping his hand under the table.

Race notices and casts a curious look around the table. When he sees the disgusted boy (Meat loaf? Pork chop? something food related), his face darkens. “You don’t like the odds?” he asks.

Pork chop snorts. “The odds is fine. It’s you I’s don’t like.”

Spot’s head snaps up, and he looks between the two of them.

Race stands, laying his cards face down. “I fold,” he says softly. Deadly.

Pork chop runs his tongue over his teeth, and looking Race dead in the eye, and says something that sucks the air right out of the room.

Albert and Spot both stand, Albert’s chair tipping backward with a crash.

Albert does the first thing he thinks of—impulsive, fast—and pushes himself to jump onto the table and across, punching Pork chop dead in the eye.

Maybe he thought it would look cool. Maybe he was trying to be impressive. Maybe he was just angry.

Pork chop recovers quickly and lays into Albert, fists in his eyes, his nose, at his throat. Albert barely gets another punch in before Hotshot is pulling Pork chop back and Race tugs at Albert’s arm.

The Brooklyn newsies are silent, glaring.

Race tugs on Al’s arm again. “Let’s go, Al.”

Spot follows them to the door. “Here’s ya winnings, Race.”

“I folded.”

Spot shakes his head. “They’s yours. You’da won.”

Race takes the handful of coins and two cigars, dumping them into his pockets.

Spot clenches his jaw. “You know he don’t speak for all a’ us.”

“I know.”

“Excuse me, I have to go take care of my boy.” He gives them a nod goodnight. Albert wonders if “take care of my boy” means patching him up or soaking him.

Race and Albert point themselves to Manhattan.

“Sorry, Race. I ruined poker night.”

“It’s ok. Let’s get you home.”

Albert just nods.

In the washroom, Race sits him on the overturned bucket and goes to work with a cold rag, patting gently at his black eye and bruised cheekbone and bloodied nose. In Albert’s opinion, it’s not bad enough to deserve a fuss, but Race has other ideas. He flinches at the touch, hissing.

He shakes his hand from the wrist halfheartedly, settles for tapping at his knee. “I’m sorry,” he says again. “I’s a wreck. You don’t gotta take care of me.”

“No,” Race says simply.

“No?”

“You’s perfect, Albert DaSilva.” Race gives a final tender swipe of the rag and leans forward to kiss Albert’s good cheek. “Besides. You looked damn hot, punching him.”

He snorts. “No way.”

“Yeah, way,” Race insists, kissing him on the mouth, nipping gently at his split lip, taking pleasure from the pain.

Al moans.

Race pulls off, winking. “It’s late. Goodnight, Al.” He saunters out of the washroom and to their bed.

*

Race rolls out of bed early to smoke on the fire escape before the other boys wake. Albert reaches into his empty space and groans at his absence. He shuffles his own way out of bed, taking the blanket with him.

He just wants a little extra that morning, especially after last night, and is still amazed that he is allowed to want.

He climbs onto the fire escape and leans on Race’s back, pressing a single kiss to the back of his neck. His hands run teasingly downward, over Race’s hip bones. He hasn’t yet put on his shirt, just in his undershirt and suspenders. “Mornin’, Racer.”

Race grabs Al’s hands and spins around, kissing him hard, cigar smoke fresh on his tongue. “Mornin’ Al. How’s the face?”

“Ugly as shit,” Al grins.

Race grins right back, gaze flicking from the black eye to the split lip. “Mm. Hot as shit, more like.” His expression goes predatory.

“You’re a terrible flirt.”

Race scoffs, fingers playing at Al’s waistband. He undoes the button, and pauses. “Ok?”

It’s then Albert realizes they haven’t really seen each other—not like this, not in the day. Quick fumbling in the dark for three weeks is one thing, but this would be something else. Another step.

“Yes,” he declares.

Immediately the wolf-like expression is back, and Race goes to pull down his trousers fully when they hear yelling from inside the lodging house.

Mush I swear to God!” shouts Romeo.

“Give me back my shoe!” says Specs, annoyed.

Mush laughs, and there’s the sound of pounding feet.

Race sighs. “Later,” he promises, and smacks Al’s ass as he leaves.

“Later” turns out to mean he keeps pestering Albert all damn morning, little touches and rubs and smacks that drive him crazy. Right up to the selling line, when Albert grabs him from behind by the hips to hold him still and growls, “Remember last night? If you don’t quit, I’ll make you regret it.”

Race, the little shit, rolls his hips back, grinding, and then hurries away, like he hasn’t left Albert needing to sling his bag awkwardly across the front.

As soon as they both have their papes, Race grabs him by the arm and yanks him down an alley, half-hidden by two trash barrels.

“Race, what are you doing, we’re outside—”

He presses Albert against the wall, gentle but insistent. “I’s so damn tired of sneaking around. Just let me—”

He drops gracefully to his knees in front of Albert. “Race…”

“Please, Al.” He looks up through his lashes, and Albert’s breath catches in his throat. He can’t form words, so he just nods, mouth open a little and breath already heavy.

Race undoes his trousers with nimble fingers, just enough to get what he needs. He takes a moment, breathing a quiet, “Oh,” that Al will remember till his dying day. And then he takes more than Albert thought he would, unabashed and unafraid. Albert chokes on a moan, one hand flying to cover his own mouth, the other resting on Race’s head.

Race pulls off, smiling a little. “You can—you can grab, if you like,” and Albert does like, so with reverence, he removes Race’s hat and pets his hair gently. The petting turns to a grip, but he doesn’t yank or control, just hangs on.

It is a few moments of heavy breathing, of a pleasure building like Albert’s never known, of disbelief that this is happening, that Race would ever do this for him. And then the tightness and warmth in his stomach reaches a peak and he tugs a warning at Race’s curls. “Race. Race, I’m—”

And then he lets out a sound somewhere between a groan and a shout and were it not for Race’s hands on his hips he’d probably sink to the ground or fly away and his knees are shaking, his whole body is shaking, and then comes down with a shudder, panting and tingling.

Race pulls off him, wipes his mouth on the back of his hand, and before Albert can offer anything, he takes himself into his own hands and with a couple expert tugs, spills himself onto the ground. If Albert weren’t still buzzing and breathing in slow gasps, he’d try to help or return the favor, and there is a small guilt that he doesn’t get a chance.

Race rests his face against Albert’s thigh, his mouth open, eyes closed, and breathing ragged. Albert pets through his curls again, gentle and reverent. “That was—so good, so good, Race.”

Race runs the tip of his tongue over his bottom lip, rolls his eyes up to meet Albert’s. When he speaks, his voice is raw and fucked. “Would do it again. Want to do it again.”

“Fuck,” Albert whispers, and sinks to the ground.

They sit there, just letting their breathing return to normal, until Race giggles. He slaps at Albert’s shoulder, and they laugh. Race wrinkles his nose and pushes his face into Albert’s shoulder to muffle the sound. He pushes Albert against the wall for a final, searing kiss, and then they make themselves presentable for the day ahead.

As they exit the alley, they nearly trip over Crutchie. He appraises them, cataloging Albert’s blush and Race’s scuffed knees. His eyebrows climb up his forehead and he barks a laugh.

“Hey Jack! C’mere!”

Jack appears at his side, drawing the same conclusions. His gaze sweeps over them. “Ha! I though you’s would never get ya heads out a ya asses!”

Albert squirms, but Race swaggers to him and throws an arm over his shoulder. “How’s about how long it took you an’ Mouth? He ever put that mouth to good use?”

Jack swats him away. “Shut up.” He straightens his cap, getting serious. “Be careful.”

Albert nods, and even Race looks sobered. “We will.”

They go their separate ways: Race to Brooklyn, Jack down the street, Crutchie and Albert the other way.

“I’s happy for you,” Crutchie says.

Albert looks over at him, vaulting along on his crutch. “I’s really happy.”

Crutchie grins. “Good.”

“Crutchie, I—I’s wondered—you knew about me an’ Race.”

He shrugs. “Sure. It was there, if you knew what you’s looking for.”

“Do you—?”

“Like boys? Yes. Like girls? Yes.”

“Oh.” That wasn’t what he meant. He meant Jack, the way Crutchie smiles at him, the way he leans into his touches. “No, I meant—I meant Jack,” he blurts.

Crutchie makes a face. “Jack’s my brother!”

“Oh. Sorry, I—” he flaps his hand in distress.

“But there is someone I like, yes.” He grins at Albert. “See if you’s can guess.”

Well, that’s puzzling as hell. Albert sighs, and starts shouting headlines.

*

Mid-April brings Easter. A few newsies care enough to go to services. Jack has gone with the Jacobs, observing Passover with them and Katherine. Elmer says he’s being forced back to church.

Finch asks Albert to go to mass with him. Crutchie comes too, both of them promising they won’t take communion. They shuffle in the back, listening as Finch recites words and kneels and stands and sits and kneels again. It’s a lot of up and down, and Crutchie ends up just sitting, but Albert keeps going. Finch takes the elements, and Albert and Crutchie cross their arms over their chest like he demonstrated for them. The father blesses them.

Albert keeps one eye open for Sister O’Doyle, but he doesn’t see her.

Maybe she really had been moved somewhere else.

“Thanks,” Finch says, between snippets of a tune he’s whistling as they walk back home. “Means a lot you came.”

“Of course,” Crutchie grins, and Albert agrees.

There is no Easter feast, and that’s ok. For the most part, it’s a regular Sunday. They play games and sell the evening pape, and all is well.

Time spent in the lodging house among friends is important. Albert stick-fights with Romeo and Mush; Buttons plays cards with the littles and Elmer keeps score of a poker game; Finch teaches Crutchie to play chess; Race challenges them to “leg wrestling” (laying flat on your back with feet even with the other’s waist, raising the legs beside each other, locking them, and trying to flip the other person). This, of course, is disastrous, and ends with Jack shouting at them about being the bane of his existence. Lovingly, of course.

Jack is spending less and less time with the newsies. He’s drawing more, and saving up money. He sells less, and Albert guesses he’s spending more time with Davey. Things are changing, at the lodging house, just small things. Henry has stopped selling morning papes and works almost all of the time at Jacobi’s. Buttons had said, quietly, while stitching a button on Albert’s shirt, that she’s been looking for a tailor shop that needs extra help. There are new littles, boys and girls, that look younger every time Albert blinks.

For the first time, Albert finds himself thinking of the future, and wondering what it might hold. He’d like to not be a newsie forever. He’d like to get a job, a real job, doing something. He’s strong enough to get work in the shipyards, and he can read, which could get him a job as a clerk. But really, it doesn’t matter what he does as long as Race is with him. And he will be. Albert knows it.

They could pitch in together for a boarding house room, like his brothers, or maybe they’d be able to scrape enough together to rent a one-bedroom apartment. Maybe. He doesn’t know. Guess he’ll just have to wait and see.

*

It startles him, to run into Sister O’Doyle on the street, but he does. She’s not wearing her nun’s habit. Instead, she’s got on a nice blue skirt and jacket like Katherine might wear, and a smart hat.

“Sister!” Albert shouts, running after her.

She turns, smiling when she recognizes him. “Albert!”

“Where ya been, sister, I’ve been looking for you every morning!”

“Well—I—you see, I wasn’t a proper nun, not really. I hadn’t taken my vows yet.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, and. Well, the reverend mother decided that perhaps being a nun was not for me.” She crosses one foot over the other. “And I agreed.”

“So what happened? Why’d you leave?”

“Gossip is not looked upon fondly, among the nuns, and perhaps I was just too rambunctious. But I’m a teacher now, for small children!” She smiles, pink-cheeked and bright-eyed.

“That’s wonderful! I’m happy for ya sister.”

“And how are you, Albert? And how is Race?”

Albert smiles. “We’s—we’s real good, sister.”

“Well, I still go to church. Maybe one day I’ll see you there?”

“I don’t go to much, sister. I went on Easter, but. I always figured people like me don’t belong there.”

“People like you?” she shakes her head. “Albert, the good Lord had dinner with prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners. There is nothing that can cause you not to belong.” She looks at him intently, brow furrowed.

He steps back, a little surprised. “Thanks, sister. Maybe I’ll see ya.”

“I hope so.”

Then she’s gone, off to teach children, he guesses.

Maybe he could be a teacher. He likes kids, and he can read.

No, you have to be educated to be a teacher. Besides, one Davey is enough for all of them.

*

As April melts into May, Albert catches himself falling more and more in love with Racetrack Higgins. He hadn’t thought it was possible, but. Here he is.

He’s in love with the sound of his laughter, rising over the chorus of noise of the lodging house. He’s in love with way he twirls a cigar around his fingers before passing over. He’s in love with his jokes and his quips and his puns; his care for their newsie brothers; his joy at spotting fresh, wrinkled, green spring leaves. He’s in love with the way Race checks up on Crutchie—subtly by his side on hard days. He’s in love with the way he gets excited about the Sheepshead horses—knowing all their names. He’s in love with the way Race kisses him and kisses him and kisses him, looking at him like he’s the only thing that matters, whispering promises of love that will last for a long time.

The world slows down when Race is around, less loud, less chaotic, less scary. Race is the anchor to all his anxiety, even if his anchor likes to dance on top of tables once in a while.

And so when it is warmer, Race says, “If ya come to the Sheepshead tonight, I’s got a surprise for you.”

“What kind of surprise?” Race’s surprises can mean anything from a sandwich to a spider.

“The kind you’ll really like.”

Oh. Oh. They mess around, have sex, as often as they can, really. They’re teenage boys, after all. But the way Race says this makes Albert’s belly swoop. He’s gotten better, more experienced. Race has had multiple partners before, he knows. He doesn’t mind, and he’s happy to take Race’s advice and cues.

(He’d asked, once, about the others. “Anyone I know?” “Albert.” “Anyone in the lodging house?” “Albert.” “I’m just curious!” “Albert.” “Fine.”)

“If you’re sure,” Race added. “Because I’m—I’m ready, y’know.”

Albert blushes, but nods. “Yeah, I’ll be there.”

Anticipation quivers in his belly when he gets to the Sheepshead, finding it seemingly closed. Race meets him out front and leads him around the back, to the stables, where a door is unlocked.

“The guy who takes care of the horses? A regular of mine. Also a terrible gambler,” Race says, by way of explanation. He guides Albert to the very back, giving passing introductions of horses. “I’ll properly introduce them later.”

In the last stall, there’s a large pile of hay, and the floor has been neatly swept. There’s a blanket laid on the floor, a small picnic set up, and Race’s selling bag set by it.

Race rubs at the back of his neck. “I know it’s not much, but.”

“I love it.” Albert settles at the picnic blanket, not asking where Race got the food. They share a meal, slowly, chatting about their days and the horses and the headlines they’d invented. And then the food is gone, and Albert’s belly is quivering again. He clears away the few dishes, standing to walk them to the corner with Race’s selling bag.

When he turns around, Race is standing, head cocked, almost like he’s unsure. “Well. Here we are.” He spins in front of Albert, dropping to one knee, spreading his arms, throwing out his chest. “Take me. Use me as you please.” He cracks one eye, waiting for laughter.

Race is so used to being a joke, used to his body being a joke, used as the punchline of so much slapstick comedy.

Albert won’t let him think himself a joke. He doesn’t laugh, and instead lets it show how much he actually wants him. He lets his face go open, eyes wide, lips parting. He dwells in thoughts of how much he loves Antonio Higgins.

Race opens his eyes, brows quirked. “Al?”

Albert crosses to him slowly, and Race just watches him approach. He takes his face in his hands and bends to kiss him, soft and full, gentle. “I love you,” he says against his lips, “I love you so much.”

That does it.

Race moans, pulling Albert down onto the hay with him. They giggle as they shuffle in the hay, hats sliding off and limbs tangled, unwilling to break contact of lips and hands. They finally settle with Albert laid back, Race laying on him, grinding down.

“Tony—” Albert looks up at him. His pupils are blown wide, hair in a wild halo, lips swollen and red. Albert thumbs his cheek, amazed at where they are, at where they started, that this is happening now. “Fuck, you’re gorgeous,” he breathes.

Race smiles, exhaling softly, and then dives back in again with vigorous passion. And as much as Albert loves this, loves his excitement, he wants to savor this. They have all night, after all. They should do it right. So he puts his hand on either side of Race’s face and pulls him off gently, brushing hair off his forehead and tracing the lines of his eyebrows, the slope of his nose, over his lips. “Stay with me,” he whispers.

And Race gets it. He always does.

They kiss again, slow, this time, making sure to savor every second. Race rolls his hips against Albert, pulling moans from both of them, though they are still fully clothed. Race kisses down his neck, nips at his collarbone, sucks on the hollow of his throat. He starts pulling at Albert’s vest, tugging at the v of his undershirt, when Albert stops him.

“Wait—wait, I—”

Race stops immediately, looking concerned. “Okay?”

“Yes, yes, great, I just—can I—” and Albert decides to just go for it. He flips them, making good use of his strength to set Race under him. Race looks enamored, mouth parted so sweetly that Albert can’t resist, and he kisses him again and again and again.

Their clothes go swiftly, after that—vests sliding off shoulders, shirts unbuttoned and shrugged away, undershirts pulled over heads. Albert stops to worship Race’s chest, covering every inch of exposed skin with kisses, pulling groans and hitched breaths from him.

“Fuck,” he whispers as Al swirls his tongue around his navel. “Fuck, Al.” He tugs gently at his hair to get him to look up. “Look at you,” he exclaims. “So beautiful.”

Albert lets himself smile, aiming for roughish and landing somewhere around dopey. “Takes one to know one,” he says, and Race laughs, and Albert watches as his stomach ripples with the sound. He runs teasing fingers over Race’s ribs, to the button of his trousers. “Okay?” he murmurs.

“Fuck, yes, please—” Race lifts his hips to help, and stops when he realizes he still has on his shoes. He scoots away from Albert, wrestling out of his pants, making irritated noises.

Albert sits up, scratching his head. “It’s okay, if you don’t—I mean, I’d get it.”

Race shakes his head, hands hovering over the laces of the shoes. “I think—I’d like to take them off.”

“Can I?”

He doesn’t look up, but he nods, and eases his feet to Albert.

Al takes them into his lap and starts by untying the laces he bought at Christmas time. He loosens them all the way down before gently sliding off the shoe. “Still okay?”

“Yeah. I’s okay.”

“Okay.” He works the other one off too, and sets them carefully to the side, right beside where his own are cast in a crooked heap. Then he peels off the blue striped socks, one by one. There are holes in the toes and heels of each, but he doesn’t mention it. He’ll ask Buttons about a new pair later, because Lord knows Race never will—but that is not for now.

Now he has Race’s bare feet in his lap, and he wraps his hands around them. Then he does something he’s tried once or twice on himself before; massaging at the sore spots that come from spending every day on your feet, working his thumbs in little circles, slow and steady. He takes his time, knowing how it feels to stand all day, knowing how Race is constantly moving up and down and jumping around. At first, Race is tense under him, but he slowly relaxes, and whines when Albert stops.

Albert laughs. “Feels good, don’t it?”

“Yeah.” Race grins at him, shirtless and glowing against the golden hay. “Get up here, you.”

So Albert goes, and they kiss, smiling and teeth clacking. A few moments later, they stop again to admire the other, seeing one another completely bare for the first time.

“Holy shit,” Race whispers. “So fucking gorgeous.”

Albert tucks the image into the place where he keeps all those private moments. He prowls over Race on all fours, practically aching for contact.

“Albert,” Race whispers, “Fuck me.”

“Sure?”

“Never been more sure about anything else in my life, Jesus.”

And Albert doesn’t exactly know what he’s doing, but he uses his fingers to prep, watching as Race slowly starts to come undone, flushed and sweating and squirming. When the moment comes, Albert bottoms out with a moan, and tightens his fingers around Race’s. He opens his eyes to look at the boy below him, and the sight halts his breathing.

Race, for once in his life, has gone completely and totally still. He’s looking back at Albert with pupils blown wide, no trace of mischief or guile on his face. It’s just Race, and it’s just Albert, together in a way they’ve never ever been before, but yet it’s still them, just the same as they’ve always been.

Albert buries his face in Race’s neck and he knows there are sounds escaping his mouth—moans and words and Race’s name, babbled and repeated, but he couldn’t stop them if he tried—and Race has been reduced to nothing more than a string of curses that sound like poetry. He runs his hands up Albert’s ribs and down his back, scratching lightly at the skin, gripping at his hips.

Race finishes first, filling Albert’s hand, and Al comes immediately after, devastated by pleasure. They collapse together in the hay, returning to a lazy sort of sweet kissing, until Race pulls away and sits up. Albert whines, and Race chuckles.

“So fuckin’ needy. I’m just gettin’ the towel.” He fishes it out of his bag and uses it to clean both of them before tossing it away. He returns with a blanket, and pulls it over both of them. He kisses Albert languidly, breath mingling and limbs winding. Albert tucks his face into the crook of Race’s shoulder, humming when Race presses kisses into his hair.

Exhausted and still trembling, they twine themselves together, drifting to sleep in each other’s arms.

*

April passed slowly; spring grows to fullness. The sun pours friendly light on them, eradicating the last of winter’s chill. The lodging house fills with laughter and with friends.

They spend their days selling and joking and scrounging for food. Albert is so happy he thinks he might burst. He sees Buttons slip her hand into Elmer’s under the table when she thinks no one is looking. He sees Sarah put a flower behind Kath’s ear, and Mush brings his girlfriend around occasionally. Davey quotes something about “in the spring a young man’s fancy turns to love,” and Jack tugs him by the tie in the direction of the roof. And on the couch, Crutchie rests his head on Finch’s shoulder, and Albert thinks, Oh. His friends are in love, and he is too, and maybe so is the world, budding and flowering and growing.

On a Saturday when it is almost May, Race takes him down to the East River, past the shipyard and along the edge of the banks. There are plenty of nicely-dressed folks here, ladies with dresses and men in suits. Albert and Race ignore them, and instead climb down the walkways to walk on the literal banks of the river.

Race gives Albert a mischievous look before stripping his shirt and pants, and jumping in. Albert follows a moment later, splashing into the cold water. He doesn’t know how to swim, so he stays where his feet can safely touch the ground, while Race paddles out farther and back again, like a slingshot. When Albert gets cold, he sits on the bank and watches as Race rises out of the water, grinning and golden and running a hand through his hair.

Holy shit, Albert thinks, That’s all mine. From the smile on his face to the trail of hair beneath his navel to his bare feet, Race comes over to him, to him, to Albert DaSilva.

They watch the sun set lazily into the city, sending golden light around them. They are mostly alone, now, and will have to head home soon, but they stay.

Race, mostly redressed, leans back on his hands and sighs contentedly. “Y’know Al, I’s the happ’est I’s ever been.” He lolls his head over to grin.

“Me too.”

“Are ya?”

“Yeah.”

Race gets serious suddenly, hunching forward and pulling his cap off his head. It’s one of those finger-snap mood changes he does from time to time. “There’s somethin’ I’s gotta ask ya.”

“Okay.”

He looks down at his hat, squeezes his fingers in it. “Jack’s talking about moving out soon. Him and Davey are looking for a place and,” he shudders a breath, “he wants to make sure I’ll lead when he’s gone.”

“Oh, Race.” Albert stills his hands with his own. “You’s already a great leader.”

Race sniffs, nods. “That ain’t it. I’s wantin’ to ask—to make sure—that you’ll be with me when I do.”

“Of course.” His words come out too loud, so he tries again, softer, “Of course.”

“There’d be changes, for sure, startin’ with a partnering system for the littles, I mean, Jesus, Jack.”

Al laughs, recalling their panic over Checker.

“And—I’d want a different room. Y’know, like Spot’s got. But for us.”

Albert blinks at him for a moment. Race isn’t proposing marriage or anything even remotely like, but he is asking to be honest, to make a—a commitment, of sorts. And it would mean being able to sleep in the same bed every night, and the other boys would know—which is fine, of course—but there’s something very real and permanent about the concept of having a room for themselves. Albert can’t explain it. Maybe it’s because he’s never had a room to himself in his whole life, and now Race is offering just that, for just the two of them.

His heart swells.

Race takes his silence as something else, and rambles, “If you want it, I mean. If you need your own space or something, I get it, but—”

Albert silences him with a kiss. “Yes. I’d love that.”

Because he would. Because he does. Because he loves Race, more than he ever thought he’d be allowed. He’ll stick with Race through everything—from the strike, through pneumonia, to the future, something he has just started to touch. Yeah, he’d follow Race anywhere, but Race would come with him, too.

But for now, it’s just them, and the river, and the stars, fingers twined, and united by beating hearts.