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markwardo

February 2014

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newsies - kings, thieves, and exiles (part 2/3)

more notes & tags, as you do:

and now for an intermission where we talk about our feelz, get those feelz organs ready kids, because fuck worldbuilding and politics this is the shit that really matters, wait what am i saying i love worldbuilding and politics, trolololo, protip number 2: the 1800s shat on pretty much everyone, accordingly: implications of child abuse, i won't blame you for reading this as slash but you'd be missing a pretty important thematic point, actually its intended to be read as confused one-sided teenaged-boy-feelings so i guess we all win





Chapter 2: Racetrack, Spot

This, they'd done before: running, tripping, calling to each other, pulling when one fell behind. This, they'd spent years doing – what felt like their entire lives – just two of them, foul river mist in their faces, voices lost to the wind. So if Spot pulled a little bit harder this time, and Racetrack tripped a little more, it balanced out in the grand scale of things, because there had been times when Race had been the one pulling, Spot tripping, both of them running for their lives.

Things felt right, in those moments, natural, and it almost felt like if they ran fast enough, got far enough, they would never have to stop.

But they stopped just before Race's lungs gave out. Spot led them up to an abandoned building, red brick moldering and cracking with age. There was a crooked, faded sign that hung above the upper story windows that, in the settling dusk, read only Alc mil a Fab ic Co.. In only the very back of his mind, Race wondered what ever had happened to Jack Kelly, and whether he'd got out in time and all right. But then Spot turned to him, pale, elfin face split in a great, toothy grin, and Jack Kelly would have to take care of himself. "You first," he said, releasing Race's hand to gesture up to a broken second floor window just big enough to for a boy their size to crawl through.

Race had shown Spot how to pick his safehouses, in those early years. This wasn't one of theirs, but it had all the qualities Race had taught him to look out for: out of the way, abandoned, and unexpectedly difficult to get into. Spot had his hands cupped, waiting to boost Racetrack up, and Spot never did like to be kept waiting.

With his sour pulse and his torn shoulder, it was difficult to haul himself up those ten feet, but manageable. What really hurt was pulling Spot up after him. While younger and still smaller than Racetrack, Spot was by no means little, so it took a bit longer than it should have, with Spot having to climb on mostly his own steam, but when he reached the window ledge, Race heaved a great pull and hauled him over. Spot lost his balance at the sudden shift and fell into him, the both of them landing heavily on the rot-soft floorboards.

"Ha," Spot huffed, nose buried somewhere under Racetrack's arm. "Ha," he said again, followed by a quick breath of air, inhaled and exhaled with force, and he was laughing.

Spot laughed with his whole body, great shudders of it shaking through his shoulders and down into his spine. He'd laughed more when he was younger, set off by funny or dumb or just unfortunate things, but it'd petered out of late. Still sounded the same though: higher-pitched than you'd expect, looking at him, wheezing at the ends. Still felt the same, like his whole world was being shook, when he muffled it in Race's body.

Race laughed too, because why not? A month, he'd spent, turning Spot Conlon over and backwards and sideways in his head, trying to make him work, trying to reconcile what he'd known about this boy with what he'd learnt, and he'd achieved nothing, understood nothing. Here though, with Spot on his chest, crushing the breath out of him before he'd had a chance to partake, laughing into him with fierce wracking gasps like crying, it was easy. It was easy to fold fingers into the soft hair on the back of Spot's skull, to touch the curve of his neck, the crest of his cheek; easy to remember why it was he'd looked after this boy for so long, taught him, protected him, kept him like family.

It was easy to forget the reasons why he'd left in the first place.

Their laughing tapered off eventually, as it was bound to do, but Racetrack wasn't sad to see it go. His head felt light, his lungs clear of air, like he'd just expelled something heavy and toxic – but necessary – from his chest. Now he was just tired.

His fingertips still touched the cool edge of Spot's ear as Spot coughed out one last giggle. They lay, heaped together, in quiet for a moment longer.

"My hand is wet," Spot mumbled, face turned towards the hand in question. He rubbed his fingers together. They came apart in tacky sounds. "Race," he said, and sat up. The inside of the building was so dark he couldn't see his own nose in front of him. Cautiously, he put his hand to his nose, then touched it with the tip of his tongue. "Race," he said again. "This is blood."

There were hands then, pulling Race up when all Race wanted to do was lay down and sleep, leading Race over to a puddle of moonlight and pushing at his clothes when Race just felt cold and sore, searching across his limbs, his torso, his neck, when Race wished for nothing more than to be left alone.

"He cut you," Spot said, finding the wound at last. It still bled sluggishly, but Race could feel it tugging where it had dried against his clothes every time he moved. "That bastard," Spot said, trying to clear the cloth away with uncertain touches. "I'll kill him. I swear to god, Race, I'll make him pay–"

The blank white buzz in Racetracks mind suddenly splintered to red. "Stop it," Racetrack snarled. He jerked away from Spot's fingers. "Talk like that one more time, and I promise you'll never see me again, never."

Spot's mouth snapped shut with an audible click, Race noted with a bitter sort of satisfaction, but then, Spot had always made it perfectly clear that, by his reckoning, the best and only place Racetrack belonged was next to him.

Silently, Spot shifted his knees until he was sitting behind Race. He put his palm up against the worst of the wound and held it there, pressing down. Whole minutes passed like that. Racetrack kept his head bowed forward, pushed by Spot's hand, pulled by gravity. Outside their broken window, the moon made silver shadows on the river; on the other shore, New York threw its golden lights out to join them like ribbons.

Finally, Spot asked him in a perfectly toneless voice, "Is that why you left?"

Racetrack was glad for his coldness, his entirely academic tone of inquiry. It made it easier to be unkind to him. "You know why I left."

"Yeah," Spot admitted, too easily for Racetrack's liking. "I know."

Race shouldered away from him purposively, but he didn't turn around. "So why're you asking?"

Spot let him go, and stretched out his fingers from one another. The skin of his palm was stiff. He shrugged, even though Race couldn't see him. "I thought you might have better reasons now."

Racetrack scathed, "What, my reasons ain't good enough for you?"

"Roacher had to go," Spot explained patiently, as if with long practice. "We had to be the ones who did it."

"No, we didn't," Race said sharply.

"No one else was going to."

"You don't know that."

"So we should've just let someone else take care of it?" Spot wished Racetrack would turn and face him. He didn't like talking to the back of Race's head, not being able to see his face. It made him that much harder to read. "Let Roacher keep doing what he was doing, sit back and take it? Guys were getting hurt, Race, what were we supposed to do, not take him out?"

"Don't give me that bullshit." He showed him a little bit of his face, then, quarter-turned, so Spot could see the tight pull of his mouth but not the anger in his eyes. "You think I don't know how those stories got started? I was there, Spot."

"You were," Spot acknowledged, thinly. "So why all this?"

Racetrack made a violent noise of objection in his throat. "You're an ungrateful little punk, you know that?" he snapped. His fingers flexed in and out of his palms, but it was doing little to relieve the resentment he could feel building up through his spine. "What else do you want from me?" he demanded. He could see the shape of Spot's face out of the corner of one eye, but not its details. "Huh? I gave you everything. I gave you goddamn everything –"

Spot compressed his lips. "I didn't ask you to–"

Race turned suddenly, pulling at Spot's shirt, fumbling to part the cloth, and Spot couldn't move, his arms unexpectedly rubber. He could feel his pulse pick up and his breath go short, but Racetrack's hands were swift and searching and impatient, and Spot didn't know what to do, how to do it – but then he stopped.

The scar was still there, slung low across Spot's neck, just under the collar of his shirt. Racetrack smoothed a thumb over Spot's throat. "You were this close to dying –" Spot swallowed under his hand, and shifted to move away, but Racetrack wouldn't let him.

"No," he said. "Look at this, look –" Spot turned his head aside. Race seized him by the jaw. "Look," he commanded. Spot looked up, then, met his eyes in a brief and unseeing moment, but then looked away again just as quickly. Racetrack let him go and sat back.

"You ever need to remind yourself how things really went down, you take a look at this," Race told him forcefully. "Then you remind yourself that you don't get to tell me what you did or didn't ask me to do." He tapped emphatically on Spot's collarbone. "Not when you have this this."

Spot had his face turned so far aside, Race could only look on him in profile. "He got the drop on me," he mumbled, "but I'm fine now."

"No," Racetrack said. He really was tired. "You would've killed him."

Spot looked at him quickly, disoriented. "I know," he said, "but I didn't, you–

"You wanted to kill him, Spot. You were going to do it." Racetrack hugged a knee to his chest and put his head down on top of it. He didn't want to look at Spot anymore. "You were going to kill a guy," he said, muffled, "and for what? This?" He gestured toward the window, the river, the city beyond. "An extra two bucks at the end of the week?" he suggested. "The chance to be the ones the bulls look for when something dirty goes down?

Spot drew himself up, his shoulders squared. "For Brooklyn," he said in a cold little voice.

Race laughed, sighing into his own chest. "This lousy shithole?" he disdained.

"What else is there?"

"Everything else," Racetrack insisted. His arm swept out, encompassing. "Anything else. You could've had anything at all but you chose Brooklyn."

Spot paused. "I couldn't have had everything," he pointed out, reasonably.

Race had never wanted to have to do this, ever, as long as he lived. He let out a hollow breath. "No, Spot, you really could've."

Spot opened his mouth again, as if to reply, but then stopped. Racetrack had prayed before; it was something he'd been taught to do but he never really took to. Every now and again, he'd ask for things like for an extra nickel, an empty bed, a full stomach, a warm night. Now he prayed to just melt into the air, because this was the part Racetrack had never wanted to reach, this bare and artless moment where Spot, in all his battered pride and assaulted dignity, reached across the space between them to touch him softly on the shoulder. "You're not everything, Race," he said, and he might've even sounded a bit sorry for it.

Racetrack squeezed his eyes shut and spat, lashing out with the will to hurt but with no real target but himself, "Well, that's too bad, ain't it? Cos you are."

The touch on Race's shoulder turned fierce. Spot forced his eyes up to his. His face was a twisted knot of conflicting emotions, openly hurting in a way he'd had Race convinced he'd grown out of. "I didn't want you to leave, I wanted you to stay," he hissed. "I told you to and you didn't even say no, you just left." Something quavered on the edge of his voice, held for a moment, like it might right itself, but then tumbled over and broke.

The impulse to help him reared its head, rooted in an instinct to protect that would never leave him be. But that was Racetrack's shame: his failure to curb, his pattern of overindulgence that had led to this moment, and so it wouldn't do to back down now. He told Spot steadily, around a cottony, dry mouth, "You didn't give me a choice."

Spot's eyes loomed luminous as he leant forwards toward the light. "You want a choice?" he asked urgently. His voice had gone high and pinched. "All right then, I'll give you a choice. I'm askin' you this time." He fumbled for Race's hand, found it and pulled until Race looked up and met him in the eye. Then he said, "Will you stay?"

"No."

Spot burst into giggles again, an edge of sickly hysteria, this time, creeping into the breaths between. His fingers twisted painfully into Race's as Race sat there and listened, hated it, deserved it, knew Spot deserved it too, even more than he did. He wanted to restrain him, or shush him, or hold him until he stopped. He did none of those things; they were comforts that came from a place that neither of them deserved anymore. Spot eventually resolved into quiet on his own. "I'd fight you for this," he hiccupped, voice still high.

"See, that's what you don't get," Race explained nervily. “They don't do things like this, over there. When a guy has a problem with another guy, the first thing they reach for ain't their switchblades."

Spot made a wet, derisive noise. "Then they're soft."

"Yeah," Race conceded, "maybe, but over there, I'm not gonna have to watch you die am I?"

Spot replied, with a dismissive clack in his throat, "I'm not gonna die."

"Yeah you are," Racetrack told him. He was talking faster than he wanted to be, but he could feel the vibration of everything that needed to be said fluttering up through his abdomen like winged insects. "Even if you live to a hundred and five, you'll be dead long before they put you in the ground."

"What," Spot mocked, "in the eyes of God?" He moved forward further into the light solely for the effect, so that Racetrack could see the contempt in his face when he said, "Didn't know you'd taken Jesus into your heart, Patrick."

Racetrack stiffened. "Don't call me that."

Spot sneered. "Call you what, Paddy?"

"I'm warning you." His voice was soft.

"Yeah?" Spot crowded up to him, up on his knees, pushing into Racetrack's space till there was none left between them. "What've you got?" he taunted. "What'cha gonna do to put that fear of God in me?" He leaned into Race's ear, asked him, "Make your daddy proud?"

Racetrack took a long, stuttering breath and held it. It seemed to help. "Nothing."

Spot sat back a bit and peered at him, nose to nose as they were. Race's eyes were downcast, hiding any flash of anger that might've risen up in them, and the dark hid the rest. Spot scoffed. He might as well have been baring his throat. "Yeah," he scathed, "didn't think so."

Racetrack looked up. His eyes were tired and his head was bowed and Spot thought, for a moment, that maybe he'd gone too far. But then Race butt him between the eyes, and it was on.

Race didn't like fighting; he'd never throw a fist when a flattering word, an easing gesture would do. He could hold his own – wouldn't have survived seventeen years of Brooklyn if he hadn't – but he didn't live for it, like Spot did, and there was nothing dignified, nothing dexterous about the way he fought. He aimed to hurt with an unscrupulous efficiency: nails and elbows and kneecaps jabbing into all the soft places on a body. He must've known he didn't have a chance, because he fought like he was up against the bell, like he had something to prove and no way to prove it but with injury. And he might've done all right for himself, but for the fact that Spot did like fighting, had always done, and that put him on top, easily, naturally, riding the rhythm of violence with the familiarity of long practice.

Spot spun Racetrack with an effortless arm around his ribcage, pushed his head down and locked his throat into the crook of an elbow, squeezing steadily, hard enough for Race's vision to speckle with lights, but not so hard that he couldn't cuss him out. Race tried to get his feet under him, swing his head back, maybe knock Spot in the chin and loosen his grip, but Spot had him grappled between his arm and his bony chest, and he was stronger than Racetrack, now, when they might've been evenly matched a year ago, six months.

Racetrack scrabbled in his hold: trying to kick out Spot's knees, maybe, throw him off balance. He hooked his fingers into Spot's forearm and pried, his heartbeat straining unevenly in his chest. "Get off me," he hissed, jaw clenched around his words.

Spot huffed. His breath hit race on the side of the face, and Racetrack strained to get away. "You're bleeding again," he said. At least he was breathing hard.

"I don't care." Race jerked, hard, but Spot held on. "Let go of me."

Spot's grip held firm. "No," he said. And that was that.

Minutes passed, and Racetrack seethed silently between gritted teeth, cursing Spot's sudden growth, his own slightness of limb. He must've took after his mam; his da he could only ever remember as enormous, legs like tree trunks, hands the size of dinner plates, crashing through walls, swallowing whisky bottles.

"At least let me sit the hell down," Race snapped. This was starting to get uncomfortable; his knees hurt from kneeling

Spot paused and seemed to consider. "All right," he acquiesced after some thought.

There was a bit of shuffling as Racetrack shifted to unfold his legs from under him. Spot kept an arm clamped beneath Race's chin, but he let him arrange himself until he was sorted. Then Spot pushed his knees up along Racetrack's flanks and settled himself up against his back.

They didn't speak, Racetrack too breathless and furious to manage words and Spot still caught up in the unexpected bite of his own need. Seconds slid into minutes, into hours into days – which was ridiculous, impossible, thinking in those terms, counting in measures of time when all they ever really had to mark it was the number of breaths they took between one another. Spot's arm had dropped a bit in its angle, crossing more over Racetrack's chest now than his throat, but it was still an iron bar set across his shoulders, held in place by Race's fingers gripped around its wrist and its fingers fisted in the cloth of Racetrack's sleeve.

This was the opposite of progress, the opposite of doing, this full and perfect stillness. This was a false and unearned respite: neither ceasefire nor peace, just one, long, held note of music dragged to a standstill by the fear that one more step forward and they would come to an end of themselves.

"I still have your shirt, you know?" Spot said lowly. His temper had settled again, and that flattened out his voice into something cool, matter-of-fact. Race could have believed him untouchable, meeting him like this.

"Yeah?" he sneered. "You wear it out every once in a while? Give everyone a taste of how Roacher died?

Spot's entire body hesitated; there was no hiding it, not at this proximity. Then he said, slowly, "No," that smooth disinterest slipping into uncertainty, "I was thinking maybe you'd want it back.

Racetrack thought about that shirt and the splash of gore down one side from where arterial spray had caught it across the chest.

"I don't want it."

Spot nodded. "Okay," he said quietly.

He always went quiet after fighting, introspective as he never was in daily life, contemplative, like a kind of bloody soothsayer, able to divine some sort of truth out of pain and violence that no one else could see.

Race just tried not to think. The gash down his shoulderblade stung in sharp stabs every time he moved, but that was a specific pain, caused and counted. When it closed, given enough time, he wouldn’t feel it anymore. That was all he needed to reflect upon.

But then Spot said, in a voice that sank Race's stomach when he heard it, "D'you remember that time we ended up in Jersey?" and that was so much for all his good intentions.

Of course Race remembered; Race remembered everything. The whole of his past and their entire history were the same thing, when he never cared to think back far enough to a memory when Spot wasn't there. He remembered the summer when Spot was thirteen and how he'd had to cough and limp to sell papes cos his voice kept cracking every time he yelled. He remembered the year when Spot turned ten, and Race had scrounged up a slingshot, and they spent a whole winter aiming at birds and flower pots before the elastic broke. He remembered when they met, when Spot was seven and tiny and how Race would take him selling with him, and Spot would follow him around on his heels, small hands pinched around broadsheets the size of his entire body.

"Here, Spot," he'd whistle and call and Spot would come trotting over to him, his face pale and round and serious.

"Stop it, Race, I'm not a puppy," he'd whine, and Race would slap his cap down over his eyes and nudge his knuckles over his hair, ruffling.

"Sure you ain't, kid," and Spot would pout and squirm and make himself neat again till Race told him, "Now you see those ladies over there? Go ask 'em to buy a pape, nice-like, like I showed you."

In the present, Racetrack just snorted, "We? You're the moron who pissed off the guys in the goddamn Navy. I just went with you cos you'd probably got yourself killed on your own." He left a space there, where Spot was supposed to laugh, pick up where Race had left off, and turn it around on him. He wasn't terribly surprised when Spot didn't.

Instead, in that same small, unguarded voice, he asked, "You ever been back?"

Racetrack sighed. He didn't like where this was going. "To Jersey?"

"Yeah."

Race fiddled with the cuff of Spot's sleeve. "Don't know if you remember, kid, but that wasn't exactly a picnic," he pointed out. "We hid in a barn for four days and then we came back because we'd nearly starved to death."

"Yeah, I know," Spot conceded. "But do you ever think about it?"

Racetrack thought about a lot of things: whether his shoes were going to hold up through the winter, whether he'd collected on that fifty cents the Jameson brothers still owed him in Queens. He thought about how the numbers were going to add up if he bet a nickel on the afternoon race, who he was gonna have to bum smokes off of if he smoked his last one before dinner. He thought about the state of the economy, the impact of heating oil on the housing market, the goddamn price of tea in China. Did he think about four freezing nights in a New Jersey hayloft?

"No," he said shortly.

Spot's arm seemed unwittingly to slip till it looped just around the hollow of Racetrack's abdomen. Race slipped his arms out from under him. It moved them closer together, and Race could feel the tugs against his scalp in the places where Spot's hair brushed against his, the touch of breath from where Spot pushed against his neck, the flutter of eyelashes where Spot hid his face into the curve below Race's ear. He spoke so softly now, Race could hardly be sure he heard him.

"It's just, I remember at night," he said, "it got so dark you couldn't even see your hand in front of your face, but you could see everything up in the sky.

Race moved his hands in his lap. The base of his thumb briefly brushed against the back of Spot's hand. Spot flinched and Race regretted lying. "Yeah," he said instead, oddly voiceless.

"It's just I don't think I've seen so that many stars."

Racetrack cleared his throat, hummed until there was only the faintest buzz in his voice. "It's too bright in the city," he told him rougly. "Blocks out the light."

But even as he spoke, the lights on the opposite shore were retreating, blinking out one by one as the night swallowed its people into sleep, and the horizon darkened and stars deferred behind the clouds until the moon shone alone, the only bright thing left up in the sky.

And it seemed like that was the end of it, the way Spot's breathing steadied out, the way his fingers relaxed against the palm of Racetrack's hand. Race thought for a moment that that was it, that he was in the clear, but then Spot stirred.

"Hey, Pat?"

"Yeah?"

Spot shifted his grip till he had unquestionably gathered all of Racetrack up into him. "If I didn't have Brooklyn, would you have gone with me to Jersey?"

Race felt as if all the air had been squeezed out of his lungs. "You don't get to ask me that," was what that breath had been for saying. "You lost the right to ask me that question when you asked me to spot you a switchblade. You gave up the claim to have that answered you walked into that house with him knowing only one of you was coming out alive."

There was an honest, moral part inside of him that recoiled every time Spot touched him. It wanted to turn away his eyes every time Race saw his face, deafen his ears every time Race heard his voice. It wanted to punish him for every memory he dwelt on, every dream he manifested, every hope he polished to a mirror shine. It was the part of him that told him to break from his past, to put away his guilt, to bury reluctance and forget. It was the part that told him to look only forwards and move on.

But that was not the part that loved Spot Conlon. That was not the part that snuck out of the craps game stacked with Roacher's boys that night. That was not the part that took back his switchblade from Spot's shaking hand.

That was not the part that he could forgive when it answered recklessly, "They got horses in Jersey?"

Spot startled. "Sure," he said. "Probably. They gotta gamble on something, don't they?"

Race paused as if to think, when all he only really did was close his eyes and try to forget all of what he'd never forgotten. "Yeah, sure, I guess," he said. "Why not?"

"Oh," Spot said. "Right."

---

They talked a little while longer, but eventually, Spot's head dropped forward and Race shifted in his hold so that it could fall to rest against his good shoulder. It wasn't the most comfortable position, and the summer evening was much too warm for such prolonged proximity, but Spot clung to him all through the night. Racetrack hardly slept at all, and when the sun came up eventually, he was the only one awake to watch it.

They were facing the wrong way for the sunrise, but it made itself known anyway, its fingers creeping warm and rosy through the dark. It cleared out the stars and swept away the moon. Soon enough, the city rose to greet it, rattling horse carts and clattering milkmen, low sounds of workers heading out for the factories, higher ones of peddlers hawking their wares. In another couple hours, the newspaper centers of New York would fire up their presses. Only shortly after that, the newsies would be out in full force.

He let Spot sleep, though it meant they'd both probably miss the morning edition. Spot slept like a top, like a baby, eyes shut tight but face lax and open. He was impossible to wake on the best of days, even more so before he was ready to get up. Race wondered absently who was going to watch Spot's back while he slept now. Probably whoever it was who'd been looking out for him since Racetrack left; one of his thugs, some paid boy bought for a nickel a week to make sure no one knifed him in his bed. Roacher always slept with one eye open. Maybe Spot would learn to do that. It wouldn't do for the new king of Brooklyn to go without a fight.

The sky lightened to pink, then blue, and then the distribution bells clanged, sounding discordant over the water. Spot stirred. He woke eventually in slow increments, life returning haltingly to slack limbs, like a dead man learning how to move again. His eyes blinked apart and then immediately shut. Groaning, he cringed and rubbed his face into Race's shoulder. "What time is it?" he grunted, face still hidden.

Racetrack craned his neck to peer back at him. "It look to you like I have a watch?" he drawled. His voice sounded rough and strained, but he hadn't been kind to it last night.

Spot rolled his eyes and peeled himself off Race's back. Their clothes had stuck together where Racetrack's blood had dried between them. "Just mean, I thought I heard the bells," he said. He picked carefully at the back of Race's bloody shirt. The line of blood had clotted shut.

Race didn't look back at him to see what he was doing. "That was ten minutes ago," he told him, then added sardonically, "Surprised you even noticed it at all, the way you was drooling all over me."

"I don't drool," Spot said quickly. He wiped surreptitiously at his mouth.

Race snorted. "Yeah you do. You should see your face, when you sleep. Every night, you're all like hnngahghh." He made a suitable face for the noise.

Spot pushed him. "Shut up," he said, but there was a bubble of humor trapped his voice. He pulled his knees beneath him and straightened up, joints crackling with disuse.

Race gave Spot his hand when he offered to pull him up. His legs were stiff from sitting, and he felt older than he was when it took him a moment to stand up from his hunch. "Every night, kid," he repeated. He gave Spot a pointed glance.

Spot crossed his arms and scowled. "At least I don't snore," he retorted.

"Course you don't," Racetrack assured him. He tested his shoulder – rigid and stinging – and patted gingerly at his clothes, shaking out the dust. "Snoring's how a man sleeps. Come talk to me when you've got more than two hairs poking out of your chin to shave in the morning. Then you'll know."

Spot stifled a smirk in order to afford him a haughty, knowing look. "You don't even shave, Race."

"Yeah, you're right," Race agreed solemnly. "I don't."

They stared at each other for a moment stuck in time like a Mexican standoff. Then a snicker broke through Racetrack's front, but he counted it still as a victory that Spot laughed first, shoulders crumpling like a wad of dry paper, shaking silently till he looked up and saw Race doing the same thing, and then they were howling.

"That ain't even that funny," Spot said, wheezing out lungfuls of air faster than he was breathing them in.

"Your mother ain't even that funny," Racetrack returned, clutching his stitching flank.

Spot choked, reaching out for Race for balance. "My mother's dead," he pointed out.

Racetrack took him by the wrist and kept him upright. "Yeah, I know," he gasped.

They ended up on the floor anyway, staring at the ceiling, sides pressed, knee to shoulder, Spot's arm wedged crookedly underneath Race's head. Every couple of seconds, one of them would let out a squeezed noise and get kicked in the ankle or rapped across the chest. A square of pale sunlight from the window intensified as the sun broke out from behind the clouds, and as the minutes passed, drifted along the floor till it tangled golden into Spot's hair.

When Spot finally turned to face him, the one of his eyes was lit more brightly than the other. He told Race in careful words, "I can protect you if you stay, but you leave, you know how it's gonna look."

Racetrack snorted and looked away, then sighed. "I don't know, Spot, how's it gonna look?" He untangled himself from Spot's limbs and sat up.

Spot followed him. There was something incredulous in his expression when he tried to catch Race's eye. "You brought the bulls on us, Race."

"I didn't."

"Well, that ain't how it looks is it?" Spot combed his hair back from his face in a gesture of frustration. He told him emphatically, "You know if you leave again, you ain't comin' back."

Racetrack swallowed and gathered himself again for another uncountable time. "Yeah, I know."

"You sure?"

"I'm sure."

Spot studied him, pale eyes flat and motionless, and Racetrack stared back, unfeeling, unafraid, but then Spot moved forward, before Race could react, and slung his arms around him.

"Bastard," he said, and Racetrack couldn't be sure if he imagined it, but Spot's arms seemed to tighten around him in that breathing, open moment, and then when he let go, Race felt every last important thing to him fall away.

And, then, right after, as Spot squeezed himself out the window and climbed down the brickwork to the street below, it struck him that maybe, this was what they meant when they talked about being free. This is what it meant to be beholden to no one, to have no one beholden to you, to have nothing to believe in outside of yourself and to have no one believe anything of you. He was his own man, to do with himself as he pleased, chained no more to duty or care.

And as the morning lit up the sluggish waters of the grey East River, he wondered, in the end, just how great that was all supposed to feel anyway.

---



Hey kids! Thanks for playing! The winner this round goes to ff.net for 40 views and 250 words in comments! Continuing in this shameless line of pimpage, SAME RULES AS LAST TIME FOLKS!

Next (last) chapter once we reach:

a) 100 views (total, including from last chapter, because I have my validation issues, but I'm also writing for a fandom old enough to legally drink in the continental USA)
b) 300 words in comments (I BELIEVE IN YOU)
c) 1 month (so August 4th)

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