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Heads Down, Hands Up

Chapter Text

Everything was a little too loud and a little too bright for Jack's taste but hey, he thrived on dysfunction, and this was a mess of his own making. Medda's theatre was bursting with newsies from every borough in the city clamouring for change. He scoffed inwardly at Pulitzer's offer of Santa Fe; sure, he was gonna go west, but he wanted a square deal here.

"Newsies of New York!" he shouted, and the racket died down. Hundreds of dirty, eager faces upturned to him like gleaming stars. "This is only the beginning. Tomorrow we's gonna march on The World, and see what Mr Pulitzer gots to say about no circulation!"

A roar rose and fell like a tide. Katherine to his right was tearing up like some sort of girl, and Davey on his left just grabbed his elbow and squeezed it tight, the closest he could get to a congratulations right now. That would come later; for now it was a very public celebration, as Medda stepped up to sing one of the new jazz songs everyone was talking about. Half the boys had never seen a woman's legs before, and the other half were getting so shatteringly drunk that it didn't much matter what they'd ever seen, and Jack - Jesus, he was so proud of what they'd done together. This was a call to arms that couldn't be ignored. A chance to leave a life as a downtrodden nobody behind.

He was watching the festivities from the lip of the stage when Davey came and sat beside him. He still looked a little too well-washed to be a newsie, but Jack still thought he'd taught him well - and Davey had certainly taught him.

"Mr Kelly." The other boy handed him a glass. "I'd say you launched this meeting in a most auspicious manner."

Jack laughed at the formality, swinging an arm around his friend's neck but having the sense not to let it go further while out in the open. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Spot pulling Racetrack to the shadows and smiled. "Because a' you, Mouth. You're the brains here."

"Maybe so." Davey grinned. His eyes were so soft, like Jack was something exquisite, and it made him preen. "But it's your words."

"Call it even." Jack clinked their glasses together and then set his down untouched. Someone needed to be sober to get his boys home in the morning. He stood and stretched, pulling Davey up too, and murmured in his ear, low and purring, "Hey, how's about we -"

"NO!"

Race's howl broke through the noise and Jack and Davey both turned, equal expressions of worry. Medda's voice died when the room took in Racetrack's fevered, frenzied state; Jack's heart starting pounding and his hands fisted, a reflex he'd never kick.

"Bulls are coming," Race spat out, "Brooklyn sold us out -"

Brooklyn and indeed Spot Conlon himself were gone; Jack suspected Spot had been trying to warn Race - half the city's newsies knew they were sweet on each other - but Race was alone now, grabbing at his brothers and oh, fuck, Jack realised, they had to go right now.

"Davey," he said urgently, "Get outta he-"

The smoke bomb went off nearly silently, but the stinging, stinking fog spread in a matter of seconds. A scramble ensued that hurt more than it helped, Jack losing sight of Davey and Crutchie and Albert and everyone, everyone before you could say headline. There was a cacophony of panicked squeals and swears and deep bull voices - "get the Manhattans! Get me Jack Kelly!"

Eyes streaming he fought through the tide, scarcely able to see. Someone crashed into his side and he didn't recognise who until he felt how small they were - it was Les, Jack realised, and he tried to pull the younger boy onto his shoulders to get him out of danger but the crowd shifted and morphed and Les was gone. Jack tried to yell for him, but smoke forced down his throat and he just gasped.

The crowd was dispersing now, running for the exit and getting jammed there. The air was thick and white. Jack spun around, desperate and jagged, and when the bat hit him he didn't even see it coming.

He felt himself fall, heard the thunk of his body on the ground. His head swam. He knew there were handcuffs going on and he knew he wasn't the only one. Spot Conlon was gonna pay for this - if Jack was ever free again.

At that thought he tried one last time to break free, a surge of power that sent him bucking out of the bull's hold, but it didn't last. Blood ran hot and sticky down the back of his neck. He was pulled to his feet and marched, marched, marched and when they started to pull him to the wagon, the cool night air was almost a blessing.

He was twisting, jerking back reflexively, but inwardly Jack might as well have been on the moon. There were other boys in the wagon, other writhing bodies on the street and even more running flat out into the night, but he couldn't tell who was who. When the bulls deposited him in the wagon he felt a cold hand on his forehead - "Jackie, Jackie, you okay?" - and heard an angry twanging promise - "When I get my hands on Brooklyn!" - and then finally, finally, quiet.

Chapter Text

Jack woke with a sore head and a bitten tongue, hands jingling and catching on each other when he tried to stretch. Cuffed. There was only one place he'd wake up in chains and it "weren't nowhere you'd want to be," he warned younger boys countless times. Nowhere Jack wanted to be.

He didn't want to open his eyes. He didn't want it to be real.

When he did it was to his worst waking nightmare, the one he'd had on and off through the years and through his splintered criminal sentence; all his boys, wrists heavy and shining with iron, pale and battered on narrow bunks and on each other. The Refuge. It was one huge mouth, some monster's maw that swallowed everything in its path, and Jack had waltzed right into it yet again; this time, with the only people in the world who mattered.

Everywhere his eyes flicked he saw someone he loved, in the place he feared the most. Crutchie. Racetrack. Albert. Elmer, Specs, Romeo, Blink, Les - so little, the cuffs almost slipping off his kid wrists - and Davey, right next to him, touching his head wound with scared and all-knowing eyes.

"Mornin'," he said. His voice was bleak and flat, and rough to his own ears, and Davey grimaced.

"Jackie -"

Jack just held up a hand and pulled himself up, sat on the edge of the bunk with only minimal dizziness. The dried blood on his head cracked and pulled. He looked around again and saw maybe fifteen bloodless faces, all Manhattan newsies. "What, they got us a private room?" he rasped. Crutchie smiled painfully.

"Said we was gonna get questioned bout the strike." his oldest friend said and Jack wanted to pull at cuffs off his own wrists until it made him bleed. He wasn't some idiot. He knew what they meant.

They'd been sold down the river, thrown to the wolves by the most powerful newsie in the city - and no other borough was gonna go against Brooklyn. If Brooklyn said to let Manhattan take the fall, Manhattan would take the fall, and be damned with their youth and promise; the Refuge was pretty good at shaking that out of people.

But Jack was still a leader. It was all his fault and he was going to make damn sure everyone knew. "When Snyder comes," he began, Davey's warm hand on his side like a guilty brand, "you boys tell him you knew nothing. Tell him I made you -"

A chorus of dissent rose from every boy in the room, Les' rising above in pitch. Since when had the Refuge taken kids his age? Davey's voice however was the only one Jack heard, soft as flannel right by his ear.

"We're in this with you, Jack. Nobody made us do anything."

How badly Jack wanted to believe that, to curl into his lover's side and let him kiss away everything bad, like this was just another bad dream for Davey to wipe away like sweat on his brow. But he had had power over this boys, he had influence, and he'd led them all proudly marching into the lions' den. Davey especially - stepping out with another boy may have been an accepted phenomenon in newsie culture, but he doubted Snyder was quite as liberal.

He shrugged Davey off. It hurt worse than the crack of the bat on his skull. "Fellas, that won't do anyone any good." he addressed the room again. "I got us here. I'll get you out."

"No." Albert had lost his cap somewhere in the chaos and his hair was the only spot of colour in the room. He had his arm around Elmer and his hand on Race's shoulder. "We's with you."

"Yeah!" Les piped up. Jack wanted to roll the kid up in a blanket and prop him somewhere safe just so he wouldn't have to see that blind hope on the child's face. Les saw him as invincible, as a knight in shining armour, and Jack had pandered to it like a self-centered idiot, just because it felt good to be adored and maybe because Les reminded Jack of himself. He was the only newsie with the possibility of a real childhood still in front of him, but he'd have to grow up real fast now.

Even shunned, Davey was still close enough for Jack to feel his body heat. Jack wanted to fall into it. He wanted to scream and scream until everyone understood. He wanted to scream until he didn't feel the fear coiling in his belly anymore.

Instead he coughed and sighed, accepting his following. "If you won't leave, we gotta get out story straight. We was in the theatre for a party, right? No rally, no nothing to do with striking."

The other newsies murmured their agreement. No one seemed much inclined to talk until Racetrack suddenly blurted out, "It's my fault, I was the one who convinced Spot to join us and now he's, he's." Race looked like he was going to cry and Jack was quick to soothe, knowing how fast Race's emotions could get away from him.

"No one's fault but Spot's." he reassured, but Race still looked miserable. Betrayal, especially from someone you loved, hurt like hell, and it was hard to turn and hate someone that fast, Jack knew.

When Snyder did eventually come, they'd all been uneasily silent for several minutes beforehand, making the man's entrance more chilling. Davey's hand had snuck into Jack's before then, and he'd let it, but now both of them separated almost in tandem.

"Heya, Spider." Jack forced himself to stand, to draw attention away from the others. "Our own suite, huh? I'm touched."

"You haven't changed a bit." the warden sneered. He was flanked by two gigantic guards but it was Snyder himself that was making Jack swallow, that was making him tremour almost invisibly. "You will learn civility if it's the last thing I ever do, boy."

"I sure hope it is." Jack snapped back, and Davey said his name in a high, scared way. Snyder took two short steps forwards and clipped him across the jaw, not enough force to knock him down but enough to hurt. A love-tap compared to what he was capable off.

It still made the boys flinch, Davey half-standing and Les held firm by Specs' hand on his wrist and Crutchie hissing in anger and sympathy. Jack barely moved. Better him than any of them.

It seemed Snyder was thinking the same, because his gaze moved past Jack and roved the room. "Take the tall one," he said finally, carelessly, and Jack started. One of the guards came towards Davey.

"Ah, Snyder, you scared a'me?" he goaded, trying to focus the blame back on him, but Davey already had a hand on the back of his neck forcing him forwards. His eyed were huge in his face, fixed on Jack with a determination that was so close to masking all the fear. Jack instinctively went to intercept, but the other guard tapped his bat against the wall once, twice, a warning. He stayed where he was, choking on nothing.

"S'okay, Davey." he lied. "You say whatever they wanna hear."

Davey didn't get to reply. The door was closed. Specs let go of Les - he had also had his hand clasped over the younger boy's mouth since they touched Davey - and he sped to Jack's side.

"Where are they going? When is he gonna be back? Are they hurting him, Jack? Why didnt you soak them? Why -"
The questions were quick and tearful. Crutchie clicked his tongue and Les ran to him, maybe seeing how still and dead Jack felt his face had become. He couldn't stop staring at the door like the whole world had up and walked out of it. Maybe it had.

Maybe it wasn't coming back in one piece.

Chapter Text

When Davey did eventually come back, Les jumped on him before anyone could stop him and sent them both sprawling. "Jesus, Les!" Jack spat, worry making his words come out biting and sharp, but Davey pulled his little brother close.

"It's alright.' he promised. "They didn't touch me. Didn't tell them anything." He locked eyes with Jack and had never looked so tired. "Everything's okay."

Racetrack whistled and crowed, "That's our Davey!" and Les cheered, high and happy and carefree as long as the bubble of his family wasn't pierced. A quiet hum broke out as the other boys discussed this new development, but Jack stood still and silent. He knew Davey better than anyone in the room, maybe even better than anyone at all, and he could see a hundred silent tells that something had gone wrong. Davey's hands were shaking as he shoved Les off as affectionately as he could manage. When he looked at Jack again his eyes were darker than Jack had ever seen them.

"For God's sake," Jack muttered, angry and scared and angry that he was scared, and unceremoniously dragged Davey into the tiny toilet off the side of the bunks.

It wasn't much more privacy than before - there was no such thing as privacy in a crowded room full of kids, and there was no penthouse here - but Jack allowed himself to touch Davey's face, soft skin under rough, calloused hands; they'd worked the cuffs off each other with a needle under one of the beds and his wrists were chafed and sore. He could see the shadow of a bruised-blue print on the back of Davey's neck from when he was lead out and it made him want to kill.

"Davey," he said, as softly as he could, brushing his thumb against the other boy's cheek, "what happened?"

Davey let out a laugh that maybe was supposed to sound nonchalant, but really just sounded rough and hard. "They didn't touch me." he reiterated, a broken record. "They said it was too much of a hassle to deal with - if my parents went to the press -"

It was hard to remember sometimes that Davey still had a family and a home and a life, and Jack felt the familiar tide of bitterness rise in him before he shoved it down, hating himself for even having it. "Ain't what I asked." A fly buzzed against the window bars and a seamless shudder ran through Davey. "I asked what happened."

Davey didn't try to laugh this time. "He just - talked." His eyes were wet. "Said some stuff about - me. And us."

"What did he say?" Jack was going to tear this place down brick by brick, and that would take the shame out of Davey's eyes. "Davey, baby. You can't listen to -"

"He said we act like - queers." Davey burst out, and the slur made both of them wince. "He said Pulitzer tried to give you a deal but...you didn't take it."

"I'd never," Jack said automatically. "He's a rattlesnake. It don't matter what he thinks of us."

Davey looked at the half-open door with a reflexive tension. "It's illegal." His voice had a shaky quality, something breakable in one of the strongest people Jack knew. "They could keep us in here on that alone."

Jack started to get a horrible twisting sensation in his chest. "Alright," he said slowly, "are you saying we should..."

He trailed off. Davey looked at the floor and swallowed very hard. "I'm not saying we shouldn't be together." He put his hand over Jack's. "I'm just - we have to be careful. And you can't be all, y'know," he smiled finally, a real smile, "protective loverboy whenever Snyder pokes his nose in."

Jack scoffed. "I ain't your loverboy." he protested, and Davey rolled his eyes, pulling him a little closer.

"Hey, uh, guys?" Specs was suddenly standing right there and Jack cleared his throat awkwardly, stepping back. Davey snorted.

"Yeah, Specs?"

"Snyder's coming back." Specs' glasses were crooked and he looked very young and very afraid; Jack wasn't the only one who'd spent time here before.

Jack felt his face fall, haven't forgotten for a brief moment just where they were. He went back to the bunkroom and Crutchie was already standing at the door, leaning heavily on his crutch and staring at where the footsteps were coming from. There was a jingle of keys in the lock and everyone started to shift uncomfortably.

"What are you doing, Crutchie?" Jack hissed, all the hairs on the back of his neck on end. "Get the hell away from the door."

"I don't want none of the other boys gettin' hurt." Crutchie's face was pale and set, like an animal going to the slaughter. "I can take it."

"Hell, you dumbass, don't -"

Jack was cut off by the heavy door grinding against the ground. When Snyder took a step in he was barely a foot away from Crutchie and Jack was on fire.

"Feel up to handling me today, Spider?" he said, so offbalanced and so full of false bravado. Jack groaned, heart hammering, and he and other other boys started to protest with protective desperation.

"Crutch, don't!"

"You don't gotta prove nothing to us!"

"Sit the hell down!"

Snyder just sneered. "I'm not interested in talking to lousy crips." he growled, and Crutchie, in one furious and righteous movement, nailed him in the knee.

Snyder dropped, howling and swearing. Jack laughed disbelievingly, a short bark of shock, and Racetrack took his cap off in awe.

"Sweet Jesus," he gasped, "Crutchie, you's lost your damn mind."

Snyder struggled back to his feet with the help of his underling, red in the face. Crutchie started to limp backwards like he'd realised his mistake and Jack leapt to block him but it was too late - Snyder reeled back and walloped him with the full force of his strength like a fatalistic god.

Crutchie smashed off one of the metal bunks, busting his nose and falling into Romeo's lap. Jack faltered, unsure of his next move in the chaos, and Snyder took the time to snap the crutch over his knee.

Jack felt rather than saw the break, the snap of his best friend's mobility. "No!" Crutchie yelped, struggling to stand and face pouring blood, and Romeo pulled him back.

"Easy, Crutch," the younger boy muttered, "stay down."

"You done?" Davey shouted at Snyder, full of the same helpless rage as Jack. "You done feeling like a man?"

Snyder was scarlet. He pointed a threatening finger at Davey and grabbed at his knee with his other hand. "Watch it, boy," he snarled, more like a feral dog than a spider for once, "You don't get any more free passes."

Then to Jack's surprise he stormed out, his pride clearly haven taken a hit as hard as his leg had. Just like last time, no one moved until the door was closed and then a moment longer.

Crutchie was the one to break the silence. "I told yous," he said weakly. "No one else got hurt cause a'-"

"For fuck's sake, Crutchie!" Jack exploded, his anger lashing out of him as something wild and uncontrolled. Everyone stared, gaping. "What's the plan now, huh? Gonna drag yourself around like a goddamn lizard?"

Crutchie raised his head steadfastly, still looking angry even with his nose dripping all over Romeo's shoulder. "I ain't no crip." he retorted. "I make my own decisions."

"Well, you're doing a lousy job." Jack snapped back, and his rage left him like he was being drained out of blood. He rubbed over his face, exhausted. Davey set a warning hand on his shoulder.

"I'm sorry, alright?" Jack tried to school his features into something more acceptable, something more befitting a leader, and sighed. "I didn't mean that."

"I know." Crutchie wiped at his nose with a filthy arm, smearing it everywhere. He stared mournfully at the remains of his crutch. "I know it's hard, being here."

"Don't think any of us would blame you for being a little antsy." Elmer added. His curls were full of dust. "Maybe we should just go to sleep."

The limited light coming from the barred window was fading fast. Jack and the other experienced boys were all too aware of how dark it could get without a candle, and how bitterly cold it could get with no blankets. The unfortunate fact of the overcrowding meant that they were going to have to share beds and although that'd help, it was luck Jack would've rather they didn't need.

He ended up in a lower bunk with Crutchie pressed against his back, snuffling and coughing through his broken nose and Davey curled into his chest. It was dark enough and Snyder felt far away enough that Jack wrapped his arms around Davey as tight as he could and kissed him once, chaste and soft.

"It'll be okay," Davey said into Jack's neck. His hands were icy but his breath was warm, and Jack could almost imagine they were just in the lodging house, safe and normal and home. "It'll be okay," he repeated, and Jack, tired, believed him.

Chapter Text

Katherine Plumber - not Pulitzer, she'd never call herself a Pulitzer again - was angry. And when Katherine was angry just about everyone knew it. She had rung the mayor, that awful man Snyder, and the head of every major newspaper in New York apart from her father but not a single one had answered her calls or, if they did, they treated her like dirt. 1899 had never seemed less progressive to her, and she was a champion of looking for the bright spots in the murk of society.

She slammed the telephone down on yet another pompous, self-centered man and buried her face in her hands. Medda was the only other person apart from David and Les' parents who seemed to care that almost twenty boys had simply vanished without a trace. Although, Katherine thought ruefully, it wasn't like she didn't know where they'd vanished to.

The Refuge. She used to pass it every day on the way to work when she took a shortcut through a rougher area of the city; a tall rickety building with an empty carriage at the front like a hearse outside a church. She'd barely noticed it. All she knew was that it was a juvenile centre and that the bars on the window sometimes had hands around them. Selfishly, too absorbed in her own little mission to change the world, she'd never looked too hard. Maybe because subconsciously she hadn't wanted to know. Now it was all she saw.

Katherine had barely made it out unscathed from the theater the night before. The smoke had half-blinded her and until Medda had rinsed out her eyes in the dressing room she wouldn't have been able to tell a policeman from a newsie. She'd regained her vision just to see an empty room, a scatter of footprints in the dirt outside the building, and none of her friends. Her and Medda had scoured the theater looking for any lucky escapees and had only found relics discarded in the scramble. A worn shoe, the buttons torn off a vest, the photo of the newsies she'd run in the paper carefully folded like it had fallen from a pocket.

Her ace Jack was gone. He was the best friend Katherine had ever had, as well as the bravest person - she was attracted, she couldn't deny, but he seemed awfully close to David. Katherine had heard about men being with men, in scandalous parlour stories and public house gossip, but she'd never given it much thought. Now that it was right in front of her though, it didn't seem all that scandalous.

"No luck, honey?" Medda asked, wandering in in her full stage dress. She couldn't just stop working until the boys came home; she didn't have Katherine's cushion of family money. Not that Katherine would ever be touching that again. Her father had never disgusted her quite this much.

"They hear my voice and hang up," she sighed. "You have any ideas, Miss Larkin?"

"I told you to call me Medda, sweetheart. And no." Medda looked tired under her makeup; Katherine knew Jack was like a son to her. "I just don't know how to sing for all those people when I can think about are those poor kids."

Katherine traced the ornate carvings of the desk. "Sing something sad." she said bitterly, and shoved the phone away. "Maybe they'll hear it through the bars."

Chapter Text

Davey's head was shoved firmly under Jack's chin, forcing his neck at an angle that made it ache. Davey was so proper and put-together that Jack used to think he was a real stiff when they first met - a real attractive stiff, but still - and then they shared a bed and Jack discovered Davey was maybe even as tactile as he was. Both of them always ended up cuddled close to the point of ridicule from the other boys.

Today though, Jack didn't have the heart to move Davey, and kept his neck at the crooked angle to facilitate the other's boys sleep. Crutchie meanwhile had obviously started bleeding again in the night, because when Jack shifted slightly he could feel dampness on his shirt. He tucked Davey into his side and twisted around to look and yep, Crutchie's face was a crime scene.

"Kid," he whispered, "c'mon, we gotta clean that shit up. Wake up."

Crutchie mumbled something like a protest and Jack sighed. He sat up - Davey latched onto his stomach instead - and looked around. No one was up yet; judging by the light filtering in through the bars he figured it must've been about seven am, around the time he would've woken up for circulation anyway. It was a miracle he'd woken up at all without the bell.

Suddenly, he heard a creak from the door.

Jack was up in an instant and almost turfed Davey off the bed in his haste. He approached the door like a sleeping wild animal, hissing at a groggy Davey to wake the rest of them up, so when the door suddenly slammed open it gave him and everyone else the fright of their lives.

"KELLY!" Snyder roared, looking like he was shaking with rage, and Jack's mouth went dry. What had he done now? Out of the corner of his eye he saw Racetrack sling Les into the top bunk, out of harm's way, and thanked God for small mercies.

"Mornin', Spider," Jack tried to stay nonchalent, but it was hard when he was trying not to stutter. He took a step towards the enraged man, hands out in a mock pacifying gesture. "You sure is worked up."

"That goddamn reporter!" Snyder was practically frothing at the mouth. "Kicking up a fuss all goddamn night, trying to make you into some kind of martyr -"

"Gee, Snyder, I'm real touched -"

"For once in your life will you shut up!" The gleam of honed, gritty steel produced on his last word made the room go dead quiet. Jack reversed his step; he wasn't gonna tangle with a knife, especially not when the wielder was so unstable. He felt old, familiar scars phantom-ache where they'd bit that blade before. He didn't want a repeat.

Davey, Racetrack, everyone was so silent. All Jack could hear was Snyder huffing and puffing and his own suddenly laboured breathing. Oh God, he thought desperately, don't let me die here in front of everyone I love -

Snyder jerked the knife towards the door behind him. His rage had turned into someone quieter and infinitely more deadly. "You're with me, boy." he spat, and Jack felt his feet start to drag forwards, so fixated on the tip of that blade winking like a star.

"Jackie, don't." Davey choked out. Jack didn't look back.

Snyder brought him to a different floor, past rooms and rooms of children in differing stages of health - all of them were full to bursting, and Jack saw more than a few rats. It smelled like sweat and piss and blood.

The main office was an oasis in all of this, a gaudy red room where Jack figured Snyder just sat plotting all day. The warden ushered him - if you could say pointing a knife at someone was ushering - into a side room off the out of place paradise and for the first time Jack resisted; he remembered being eight and then eleven and then fourteen, curled in that tiny closet room with his whole body on fire, claustrophobic and fear eating him alive.

"No," he protested, with no one to protect now, "hold on a sec, Snyder, wait!"

Snyder just shoved him, hard, sending him sprawling into the single chair. Davey sat here just yesterday, Jack thought, and Snyder didn't hurt him but he'll sure as hell hurt me.

"Now." Snyder shut the door, leaving the two of them alone, and Jack cringed lower in the chair. "Let's talk, boy. Just like old times. Tell me about the strike."

"Ain't nothing to tell." Jack would rather Snyder kill him than incriminate any of his boys. "It was all me."

"That's not what it looked like." Snyder was close, too close. Quick as a snake he fisted a hand in Jack's hair and jerked his head back, earning an involuntary gasp of pain.

The last person with their hands in his hair had been Davey, stroking and sorting, helping Jack get ready for the riot. The memory made his throat close up.

"All me," he croaked, and let out a yelp when the knife pressed to his exposed neck. Snyder had him practically bent backwards over the back of the chair, finger scrabbling for a hold. "I made them. They just followed."

"That Davey boy didn't seem like you made him, huh? He tell you what I think you are?"

Jack didn't answer fast enough, his brain too slow and too goddamn stupid with panic, and Snyder let go of his hair to slap his face. "You answer me when I talk to you, Kelly. You want me to try getting this out of one of your boys, huh?"

Now he was attentive. "No!" Jack burst out, and accidentally showed his hand. Snyder hummed thoughtfully.

"That cripple wouldn't put up much fight - pull on that leg and he'll squeal out the whole story."

"Yeah, how's that knee, huh?" Jack retorted before he could stop himself. Snyder's eyes darkened.

"Maybe that boy with the ridiculous cigar, or the redhead or Glasses, or oh, maybe Davey?"

Jack moved restlessly, dying. "This is between you and me." he said firmly. "Always has been. You don't care about no strike - you care that I make you look dumb, and you is."

Snyder loomed, the shadow thrown on every inch of Jack's whole life. "You and me could be arranged." he sneered, and, sure now that he'd secured protection for his boys for at least a few hours, Jack closed his eyes and let himself drift.

Chapter Text

"He should be back by now."

"It's only been a few hours, Davey. You was the same."

"He hates Jack, Racetrack - he had a knife, for God's sake. If he - I don't know what I'll do if -"

"Alright, Mouth, take it easy. Won't help him none."

"Nothing will."

-

Jack had to, in the end, thank God for small mercies no matter how small they were; Snyder had put the knife away and gone to straight to an old fashioned soaking. It hurt like hell but he probably wouldn't die from it - probably. He guessed he'd had worse, but it sure didn't feel like it.

Snyder didn't seem to have any plans to take him back to the boys. He'd locked the door and left Jack in the dark with no windows and no way to see how bad he looked which might of been a blessing. He catalogued his injuries as best he could, mostly by walking around and seeing what hurt when he moved, but he'd given up after an hour or two and just slouched in the chair.

He kept hearing Davey's helpless shout of his name, over and over again. Jack shut his eyes and rocked the chair back on two legs. "What happened to no protective loverboy?" he murmured to himself but didn't mean it. It was always nice, especially after a lifetime of being the only one who cared if he lived or died, to have someone concerned for his wellbeing. Especially such a someone as Davey.

Jack remembered the first time they'd kissed like it was playing on the inside of eyes. Davey had made the first move, because Jack had convinced himself some bright boy with a future would never go for a street rat, let alone a male street rat. Davey had dragged him up to the penthouse and interrupted his stream of questions with a bruising kiss.

"Didn't anyone ever tell you when to close your damn mouth?" he'd asked, all sweet and playful and so unlike how it had been said to Jack his whole life, and that was when he'd known this was someone he could love. This was something good for him.

Jack's eyes snapped open, dragged from his reverie with the sound of a key in a lock. A guard opened it and when the light spilled it Jack winced, shielding his eyes.

"Shame," he said, coughing a little, "ain't got the guest silverware ready."

The man scowled. "You ever gonna shut your mouth?"

"Sure hope not." Jack muttered, and allowed himself to be brought through the office, feet stumbling over the plush carpet. In the light he could see bruises up and down his arms, and he had a heavy limp that could almost rival Crutchie's. He was kinda glad he couldn't inspect his own face.

The Refuge was just as stinking as when he'd been walking the other way, just a little louder. There were men walking around with bowls of chunks of bread, watery soup that Jack knew was to be shared among ten kids. His stomach growled, echoing through every stretch of his time here, remembering the feeling of his bones poking into his skin.

Every door looked the same, so Jack didn't realise they'd reached the Manhattan room until he was in it. The boys already looked pretty lifeless, but the tension on their faces died when they saw Jack which felt pretty good, he had to say.

Les came running just like he had with Davey, but this time Jack stopped him at arms length. "Hold it, kid," he wheezed, stomach aching with the effort of holding off the excited child, "gimme a sec."

"You look like hell, cowboy." Race called, with a shit-eating grin. "You fall down the stairs, huh?"

"Ah, Roosevelt's carriage musta run me down." Jack answered. He scanned the room, seeing a few iron bowls one of which still had some food, and was touched; he knew food meant just about everything in his place. Then he saw Davey, sitting on the bunk with his knees drawn to his chest, the only one who hadn't immediately reacted to Jack's entrance, and stepped cautiously over.

"Hey, Davey, baby," he said slowly, coaxingly. "You doin' okay?"

Davey looked at him once, then rested his head back on his knees. "You got a black eye." He seemed so listless. "I thought you were gonna die, Jack."

He winced; Jack and not Jackie meant that they were gonna have a serious conversation, and he was just too tired. He eyed the food longingly and then sat down by Davey like he knew he should.

"I'm fine." he promised. "He was just, uh, warming me up, right?"

Davey didn't acknowledge the joke. "Crutchie's stuck on the bed. He can't walk and he won't let us carry him." He finally looked at Jack and he was about to cry and Jack flinched, wanted to soothe but knowing he couldn't until Davey was finished. "Everythings's gone to shit, Jack. Snyder could of killed you and no one outside this building would've known." His hands fisted. "I just feel - helpless."

Jack laughed a little, humourlessly. "You ain't never been helpless your whole life, Davey." he replied. Davey leaned into his side and Jack put an arm around his shoulder. "You's the Walking Mouth, right? You're gonna change the world when you get outta here, and you will."

He didn't say 'we' on purpose. He didn't want it to end up as a lie.

"I can't do that if you die, Jack. I won't be any good -"

"Bullshit." Jack shoved at him. "You never needed no one. And I ain't dying from a black eye."

Davey huffed, but he put his knees down and stood. "Time for you to eat, idiot."

Jack's stomach growled. "Nah, give it to Les or Boots or somethin', they need it more -"

"How are you so stubborn? You -"

It dissolved into light gossip until Jack ended up eating and sulking about it until his overwhelming hunger took over, and then he was almost in a trance where nothing existed beyond the food and the comfort it brought. Albert had to call his name twice to get his attention.

"What?" Jack groaned, setting aside the bowl, and then saw how white Albert had gone, his hair fire against his pale face.

"We gotta visitor." was all he said. The door was still closed, so Jack looked past him to the window and - oh.

"Evenin', Jackie-boy," Spot Conlon said, perched on the wide sill like he owned it, like how he treated everything, "how's tricks?"

Chapter Text

Spot Conlon and Jack had been friends, a long time ago. In the years before they'd become teenage kings, they'd just been kids with too many papers to carry in their skinny arms, kids who didn't much care about invisible boundaries - Spot had taught Jack how to pickpocket when they were too little to know better. Jack had taught Spot how to kiss when they were old enough to know better.

There had never been any feelings involved - it was just two teenagers with no one else to practise with, two boys who didn't think anyone else outside the pair of them would understand what they wanted. They'd drifted apart after the first few times - the only two times - too wary that the other would tell his secret, and then Spot had killed his way to the top and that was that.

Well. No one could say kill. It was just that no one thought Bayer had fallen off that fire escape all by himself.

Now Spot was the very last person in the world Jack wanted to see, but he wasn't the only one who felt that way. He glanced at Racetrack; the other boy was carved out of marble, numb and cracked, his eyes distant as he stared at his lover who'd sold out a whole borough.

"What the hell you doing here, Spot?" Jack growled, moving quickly to the window and itching to throw a punch through the bars. Spot just smiled tightly.

"Came to see how you all was, Jackie-boy." Lie. All Spot did was lie.

"You happy now you got us out of the way?" Jack snarled, and this time he did seem to ruffle feathers. The king of Brooklyn smoothed back his hair and lost the smile.

"I needed the territory. It's gettin' colder every day and my boys is -"

"I don't give a damn what your folks need!" He was shouting now; he heard a discontented, agreeing mumble from the rest of the room and it only spurred him on. "You're a lowlife, Conlon. We's worth ten of you, every one of you. Some newsie you are - you traitor."

Spot looked past him infuriatingly, at Race. "Tony," he started and Racetrack let out a scoff that sounded like a sob.

"I ain't got nothing to say to you." His eyes shone, too bright for fever; tears. "You...you disgust me, Spot."

Spot's face iced over. He turned his attention back to Jack like nothing had happened. "I came to see what I could do." He tapped his fingers on the bars like he was the trapped one, expectantly, and when Jack raises his eyebrows he sighed impatiently.

"Jackie-boy, I'm asking is there any way to get yous out."

Jack opened his mouth and then closed it, speechless; Racetrack made another disbelieving noise, and Spot rolled his eyes.

"Catching flies?" he asked dryly. "I asked a question."

Of course, the king was never ignored, but Jack was having trouble finding just about anything to say. "Why?" he got out finally.

In Spot's face he saw the trace of a child's guilt, the twitch of his left thumb a substitute for wringing hands, and a torturous regret that Jack had only seen on him once; the first time he saw him after he became leader of Brooklyn. The scream hidden behind a shouted order. Someone who was in way, way over his head.

"Ain't right." Spot was looking at Racetrack again. "Ain't right t'leave you in here. The strike was dirt stupid, yeah. And I needed your grounds. But it ain't right."

"How can we be sure it's not just another trick?" Davey called, ever the voice of reason. Spot's mouth quirked, not quite a smile and not quite a smirk.

"I gives you my word. After that, you ain't gonna know."

There was a noise from outside and Spot looked over his shoulder. "I gotta go. I'll be back." Shadows played over his face. "See ya, Jackie-boy. See ya, Tony."

He was gone in seconds, and the only sound was the soft thud of him landing off the fire escape. Jack coughed into the quiet.

"Racer," he tried nervously, and Race, with a heave, stormed into the toilet and slammed the door. Albert followed him without a word; Jack just stood, with too many of his own problems to worry about anything but the magnitute.

Davey's arms hugged around his waist, his chin on Jack's shoulder for a brief second, a message disguised as a comfort (and maybe a comfort too). "Crutchie needs help." he whispered so no one would hear. "He won't say but he can't get up."

Another crisis. Jack shot an inconspicuous glance at Crutchie and reminded himself of the current vulnerability of his oldest friend; without his crutch he was essentially paralysed. Watching him try to stand was so painful that Jack fairly ran over.

"Ah, Jack, I'm alright-"

Jack just pulled Crutchie's bad leg into his lap and started working on the knots just like he always had. Feeling the destroyed muscle spasming and fluttering was at least a pain he was familiar with. When he dug in at a particularly bad spot the other boy winced, but before long Crutchie was melting into his shoulder.

Now that he had a task Jack found it easier to focus on the problem of Spot Conlon. All he needed now was for Spot to go tattle to Snyder about how they were planning an escape for a few more blocks of territory, and he was worried it'd head in that direction. He needed to protect his boys from more harm, but he couldn't while they were in the Refuge, but he couldn't risk them with Spot, but -

"Ow, ow!"

Jack lightened up. "Sorry."

Crutchie just grinned at him. "You thinkin' bout Santa Fe, pal?"

Jack looked at Davey across the room, the light on his collarbones and his strong, sure hands holding Les on his back, so exquisite. He imagined Spot getting them out, and him and Davey running away from the mess they were in, somewhere no one knew them and life was all just kisses and sweet as honey.

He turned his attention back to the task at hand. "Yeah, somethin' like that."

Chapter Text

Jack was standing in a hallway that seemed like the lodging house, but it was too dark and too quiet - it was never quiet. He started to make his way the corridor but none of the doors would stay solid long enough to open. Colours smeared in the corners of his eyes like steam on glass.

He blinked and Davey was in front of him and he smiled, relieved. "Where is everyone?" Jack heard himself say, his voice sounding distant and wrong. Davey didn't answer; he raised his head.

His face was beat to all hell, handprints wringing his neck and blood running down his temple, and his eyes were so, so dead. Jack screamed and screamed and screamed.

He woke up in the Refuge in a cold sweat, jerking and panting, unable to catch his breath and feeling like a little kid. Just some nightmare, some stupid bad dream. It was still pitch black; he felt around anxiously to his left and hit Davey square in the nose.

"Ow!" the other boy hissed drowsily. Jack couldn't see Davey's face, couldn't see if his eyes were dead or alive, and couldn't stop a short, broken noise from leaving his throat. His eyes welled up - stupid, worthless, frightened little child -

Davey was up in an instant, his warm hands framing Jack's face. "You're okay. He's not here, Jack."

Davey thought this was about Snyder coming for Jack - no, it was about Snyder coming for everyone he loved. Jack ran his fingers over Davey's neck and shoulders to search for bruises, unable to accept his reality, deaf and blind to any reason the other boy could offer.

Davey leaned out of his touch for a moment - Jack's hands snagged and fisted in his shirt - and came back with the swish of a match and a low gold light, one of their only candles melting hot in his palm. His face was tired and drawn but it was alive.

"Hurt you." Jack got out. It was almost lucky that he could barely talk above a whisper at that moment; no one stirred. "Not me. Wasn't me."

Davey sighed and the flame flickered. His free hand came up to comb Jack's hair off his forehead. "We're okay, Jackie." he murmured. "I promise. Tonight, we're okay."

Jack thought back to past stays at this hell, to midnight wake up calls to scrub on hands and knees in barely watered-down bleach, with the sting of chemicals in his eyes. Snyder used to love disrupting their sleep pattern; made them easier to control, Jack had heard him gloat.

Maybe tonight he wouldn't come; maybe tonight he'd leave Jack with the fragile peace of the candle. "Tonight." he repeated, swallowing thickly. He sounded like an idiot but Davey, ever patient, clasped the back of his neck and touched their foreheads.

"I wouldn't lie to you, Jackie. Go back to sleep, huh?"

Jack let himself be guided back down - Crutchie had barely twitched throughout all of this, exhausted as he must be - and Davey blew out the candle, pulling Jack to his chest. His heartbeat danced in Jack's ears, steady as a promise, and he finally closed his eyes.

Chapter Text

When Snyder came back - stalking in as if he was ten times his size and sending the boys scrambling to their feet like little soldiers - Jack was almost relieved, because at least now the waiting was over. He'd spent the morning practically twitching in anticipation; waiting for pain was almost more sore.

This time Snyder didn't have guards; he had the Delancey brothers, infinitely worse, cruel and with a bone to pick with just about every boy in the room. Race opened his mouth to snark at them and Albert stuffed his cap in it.

Jack took over, as per usual. "How's that honest work going, fellas?" he asked mildly. Oscar rolled his eyes and came forward, but Snyder stopped him with an admonishing hand.

"Needed my best men today." the warden replied. His flat, dark eyes reminded Jack of a shark. "You kids seem real close - we'll see if that'll help you open your damn mouths."

Jack felt sick, that foul taste in his throat that had, since he was young, never failed at correctly predicting disaster. Morris was cleaning his fingernails with a penknife, by all accounts a harmless act, but everything in Jack was screaming at him to disarm the other before -

There it was - the knife spun in in the air and lodged in the floor between Elmer's ragged boots. He yelped and leapt up high like a fire was burning up to his ankles, and Specs and Blink to either side of him half-dodged instinctively.

"I've been practising." Morris said, innocently enough. "Oscar reckons I could pin the crip like a butterfly before you could say strike."

Jack shot a glance at Crutchie, stranded on the bunk and glaring; he spat defiantly, but he was bone-white.

Jack shifted his weight and wondered how fast he could get the knife out of the floor and into Snyder's fat stomach. At the same time he dreaded even touching it where it still quivered from the force of the throw like something alive. Before he could make the decision to try his luck, it was made for him.

By Davey.

He moved with speed Jack didn't know he possessed, the blade in his hand and straightening to his feet within seconds, moving towards the Delanceys with his lips pulled back, all feral and teeth. Jack grabbed for him - missed - out of reach - and Davey was across the room, hand cocked.

But Davey, for all his time with the newsies and on the front lines of the strike, lacked the experience of a kid grown up on the streets. He was fast but jerky, like he wasn't controlling his own hand, and before the knife completed even half its arc Morris had him in a chokehold and it clattered to the floor.

"Da-" Jack started, and Les screamed, but Morris tightened his grip as soon as Jack took a step and Davey gasped, his pupils blowing wide.

"Alright," Snyder said, unaffected by the violence around him and the stink of fear, all sweat and salt. "I wasn't planning on him, but I guess we'll use with the smartmouth. What was the next move planned for the rally, Kelly?"

Jack couldn't take his gaze off Davey, how blue his lips were becoming, how his clawing at Morris' arm was becoming weaker. Still, Davey looked him dead in the eye: don't say a word.

"I don't know," Jack said nervously, scratching the back of his hand in an effort to keep his hands busy, "I mean, ah, we hadn't planned any further, honest -"

Morris hauled, and Davey's feet left the ground. His eyes rolled back into the head and Oscar picked up the knife and started twirling it around his fingers, a warning to any interveners; Les was caterwauling from Spec's restraining arms like something wild and Jack wasn't doing much better.

"Jesus, stop it!" he burst out. "Stop it, please, ain't nothing else to tell!"

Snyder's shark eyes were unforgiving, the reflection of Davey's weak writhing clear as if it was bouncing off a sheet of glass. "Why did the Sun run your story?"

"Plumber, she did it for us - stop it! You're killing him!"

Davey had gone completely limp, the whites of his eyes visible through half closed lids, and sighed out the last of his air in a rattling wheeze. Oscar dropped him, disgusted at the sound, and it made a noise like falling bricks.

Jack rushed to him, uncaring for the knife, as did most of the other boys. Racetrack was already tearing off his vest to put under Davey's head, and Jack tilted his face to the light. There were blood vessels burst on his cheeks like little scarlet roses. He wasn't moving.

"Oh, God, Davey, don't do this," Jack pleaded, and then, "Someone get Les out of here!"

While Spec carried a shrieking Les into the bathroom to spare him the sight, Snyder started to whistle. "That was a far more productive chat, wasn't it boy?"

Jack shook Davey helplessly, ignoring the awful presence still in the room, so full of terror that he wanted to vomit. "We gotta blow in his mouth," Boots told him, and Jack ducked down to do just that.

After so many kisses, it should have been easy, but it wasn't. Davey's lips were slack and blue. Jack did what he was told, over and over, ignoring the Delanceys calling him queer and Snyder telling him this wasn't finished as they left - over and over, fanatic in his desperation.

When Davey finally took a deep, shuddering breath, Jack scarcely believed it. He rocked back on his heels, hoping against hope the other boy would wake up and say something snarky, but he stayed still. He was breathing, but his eyes were firmly closed now.

Jack felt hands pulling him up - Romeo - and resisted a little. He felt numb and his hands were buzzing. He was deposited on a bunk, where strong arms held him protectively - Crutchie.

"He's just sleeping, Jack." Crutchie promised. "He needs the rest."

Jack's head was spinning. He watched detachedly as his boys lifted Davey - with such care - onto his own bunk, done in silence with barely a murmured hush. Les shot to his brother's side. Jack wanted to be there, to hold and soothe, but Crutchie combed through his hair in a possessive sort of way and he leaned into it. Everything seemed so far away. Everything seemed so out of reach.

Please God, Spot, get here soon.

Chapter Text

Jack's bird was late.

Spot had been waiting on the bridge for over twenty minutes now, and he was just about out of cigarettes. Race hated when he smoked - for all the cigars he kept clenched in crooked teeth, he only had them at Christmastime - but Race wasn't here. Might never be here again, thanks to Spot.

The filthy smog drifting in over the river made his eyes sting, reminding him of the smoke bombs, the desperate scramble from the theatre he'd watched from the opposite roof. He had tried to drag Race out of there, first with words and then physically, but to no avail.

"You fuckin' rat," Racetrack had hissed, eyes clouding and shining, "how could you? How could you?"

Then he had run into the light, seconds before the bulls had arrived. Spot shrugged off the memory and shut his eyes against it, shuddering. Remembering wouldn't help Race none; he had to break them out if he was ever gonna fix what he'd destroyed.

"So, the famous Spot Conlon."

He spun around; Plumber was standing there all dressed up, her face reminding Spot of this statue of Mary in the orphanage he grew up in for a few years - fierce and lovely and utterly, utterly determined. A smile broke out over his face; now this was someone he could work with, none of Manhattan's false brashness and Queens' goddamn pettiness. This was another battleaxe.

He spat in his hand and to his satisfaction she shook it without hesitation. "That's me." he replied. "Let's get to it, Plumber."

-

Davey slept for almost 24 hours, his neck turning a nasty shade of purple and his breathing coming out all raspy. There wasn't anything Jack could do but sit with him, listen to the silence left by the absence of the Walking Mouth. Davey's face was bone white and made him ache. Les curled at the foot of the bed like a sentry, age creeping into his eyes every second his older brother still lay unconscious.

"Do you think Ma knows where we are?" he'd asked at one point, still believing in the almighty power of a parent, and Jack had been unable to pander and just said:

"Yeah, kid. But that don't mean she knows how to get you out."

He'd said it as kindly as he could considering the circumstances, but Les' face had still fallen, and now both of them just sat quiet watching Davey. The other boys kept bringing them food, and they could make Les eat it but to their chagrin Jack wasn't touching anything. The shadows under his eyes were deepening like sinkholes, swallowing everything.

When Davey did wake up it was with a whistling, silent scream, his eyes fixed on nothing as he struggled against invisible hands. Jack had shove his shoulders back on the bed just to stop him from upending Les off the end of it.

"Baby, it's me." he promised, ignoring the newises gathering around them to see the Lazarus rise. "You're alright, we's all here."

Davey's eyes finally looked at him, lost and wild. One of his hands went to the bruising on his throat and he made a sad like wheeze that Jack's chest ached at. "Wha' happened?" he tried to say, but it barely came out as anything resembling audible sound.

"Delancey had his arm around your neck an' he was choking you an' you went all blue!" Les piped up, face anxious and open. "Then you were breathing all funny an' then Jack had to kiss you to make you breath again!"

Jack smiled tightly at Davey. "Basically, yeah, Davey. But they's gone now and you're still here."

Davey's forehead furrowed. He went to say something again and winced, dropping to a whisper instead. "Everyone else okay?"

Jack rolled his eyes, knowing that Davey was just fine if he could worry about everyone but himself. "You nutter," Crutchie scoffed from across the room, "you mind yourself, Jacobs!"

The tension in the room broke and a murmur of laughter ran through. Davey propped himself up on his elbows and stretched his head back; Jack's chuckle faltered at the darkness on his throat. He half remembered kissing down the column of that neck, giggling together when Davey squirmed and sighed - but now he was afraid to touch it. Now the memory he'd associate it with was a strong arm choking the very life of out his favourite person in the world.

Jack coughed, standing up off the bed. "I'll get you some water," he muttered, and escaped into the toilet before anyone could stop him.

As soon as he was out of sight Jack's legs gave out, leaving him to slide down the wall to the filthy floor. He'd seen plenty of people die - his own ma, for example, and two years back influenza had wiped out three kids at the lodging house - but he'd never really held someone so close to leaving the world in his arms, and never someone he loved as much as Davey. He buried his face in his hands for a moment, and then stared bleakly at the water-stained ceiling. No more blank eyes and blue lips; he could never see that again.

Like a ghost Davey appeared in the doorway, and Jack smiled weakly. "Hey, baby." He tried to straighten out his features. "You should be in bed."

Davey sighed. The burst blood vessels in his face looked like scarlet freckles; Jack heard rain start very gently against the bars. "It wasn't your fault." Davey whispered, strained and hurting, and knelt down beside him.

The hushed voice made it sound like Davey was reciting psalms. Jack wondered if God had ever graced this hell. "Everything is." he replied. "I make everything wrong."

"That's not true."

"Then why are we -"

"Don't make me argue with you when I can't speak!" Davey hissed, and both of them grinned. Jack reached out and fixed the lock of David's hair sticking up from his forehead.

"Alright, alright." He stood up and pulled Davey with him, and was about to say something else - but he'd never know what it was. Because at that exact moment , there was the strangest sound.

There was a knock - not a slam or the click of a key - there was a knock at the door.

Chapter Text

Pulitzer, as far as Jack was concerned, must have come out of the womb with a forked tongue and slit pupils. He had a way of speaking that made Jack want to rip his own skin off just because it itched and crawled so much, and the memory of his powerful hands on Katherine's shoulder still made Jack burn. He was every rich, domineering, arrogant man that had ever called Jack a worthless child. And now he was almost certainly on the other side of that door.

He was the only one, surely, who would knock on the door of a prison cell, and it was the same well-bred four-tone knock Jack had heard Pulitzer rap on his desk impatiently. He slipped back into the main room, to see the confusion on everyone's faces - everyone except Racetrack.

Race's demeanour had lit up in a painful way. "It's Spot," he murmured, leaping to his feet, "I bet it's Spot come to get us out!"

Jack's heart lurched. "Ah, no, Racer -"

The knock came again, and then the key clicked, back to familiar and terrifying sounds. The handle turned with a squeal and the snake arrived.

Pulitzer's boots clicked with military precision as he entered. Jack saw Race bite his tongue and turn away, scowling with disappointment and embarrassment, and in a move of stupid defense of his friend decided to piss the older man off as much as he possible could.

"Gee, I'm real touched." he crowed, sidling closer even though his pulse was coming out of his wrist, an unravelling thread at the core of him. "You come here t'see little ol' me?"

Pulitzer's face was smooth and disgusted. He held his arms close to his side like he didn't want to risk touching anything. "You haven't changed, boy. I take it institutionalisation has yet to cure you of your..." He waved his hand vaguely. "Temparment."

"Not yet, Pulitzer, but there's still time." Jack was a man on fire, drawing everyone's eyes until the moment he burned out - but that could never happen, or the reptilian gaze would fall on someone else. "You come for something special from me?"

The moment Jack said it he heard the implication, the innuendo he hadn't intended, and saw Pulitzer's lip curl. The last thing you wanted to do was offend rich men, and insinuating they were queer was about the worst insult you could deliver. Jack cringed inwardly and waited for the divine blow.

"You're even more base and deplorable than I had imagined." the older man sneered. "I see now at least I don't have to worry about you with Katherine - not if you spend your lousy life on your knees."

Jack couldn't stop himself. He tore forwards, hating Pulitzer's cheapening of his and Davey's love, and only got stopped by a hold on the neck of his shirt.

"Easy, cowboy." Albert and Elmer soon each had him by an arm each, and Jack let the anger bleed out of him. To his satisfaction, Pulitzer had taken a step back.

"I've come so I can tell my daughter how well you're all being treated." Pulitzer smiled mercilessly; he fiddled with his cuff link. "Maybe then she'll stop her useless crusade and realise that criminals should be punished."

Albert and Elmer tightened their grip when Jack snarled. "We ain't criminals." he spat. "Only crook here is you."

"We have the right to strike." Davey added. The strain of raising his voice made it scratchy and fragile and Pulitzer looked at him - surely seeing the bruising on Davey's throat and the pallor of his face - and laughed.

Jack snapped. He broke free of his friends' hold and launched himself at Pulitzer, slamming the older man into the wall with enough force that they almost rebounded onto the floor; Jack locked his hands in the expensive lapel of the snake's suit and shook him, hard.

"How would you like it?" he yelled, helpless with anger and hearing his boys call out with distress and warning. "How would you like to get choked half t'death? How bout we try that?"

"Jack, get off him!"

"You'll make everything worse!"

"Jackie, get away from him!"

Jack was strong from years of self-sufficiency, but he was still seventeen and Pulitzer had to be pushing forty. He wrestled Jack off of him easily, face puce with rage. "You impudent little child," he growled, grabbing a fistful of Jack's hair and shaking him. "You dirty, good-for-nothing little queer!"

Jack was almost howling at this point, scrabbling at Pulitzer's hand to try and get rid of the fiery pain of his scalp. The calls had now turned to support and worry.

"You's worth ten of him, Jack!"

"Nobody get involved, nobody touch Pulitzer!"

"Let go a'him!"

When Pulitzer did release him Jack fell to his knees, touching his head and half-expecting to see blood. He hissed out a breath and looked up; Davey was distraught but heeding Crutchie's warning to steer clear of Pulitzer's space. He was making aborted little movements like he wanted to rush to help, but stayed rooted still.

"I'll see Snyder kill you for that, boy." Pulitzer took a step back into the hallway and whistled, sharp and loud enough that Jack winced. The threat made his stomach drop. "You'll pay for that with your life."

"No," Davey choked out. No one listened.

Snyder came thundering in within seconds. He saw Pulitzer's crumpled shirt, Jack's bent-double form on the ground, and put it together with an almighty snarl, and Jack started to crawl backwards as subtly and as quickly as he could.

"Don't worry, Kelly." Pulitzer remarked, placing a discreet coin in Snyder's breast pocket. "I'll send Katherine your love."

While he walked away, and Snyder advanced on Jack in indignant fury, he was whistling.

Chapter Text

The first time Jack was in the Refuge, it was with Crutchie. His limp had been even worse back then, and Jack was too young and scrawny to protect either of them, and Snyder had been younger and stronger with everything to prove. As much as Jack infuriated him, Snyder had had a particular bone to pick with Crutchie, and even the older boys liked to pull his leg to make him squeal.

For years after, Jack would wake up in cold sweats, hearing the other boy's shrieks echoing through the Refuge in his mind. It was an old, cheap building with thin walls. You could hear anything if anyone was loud enough.

That was how Jack knew his boys could hear every sound he made. He bit his lip so hard it bled when Snyder dragged him out - what was it about people. grabbing at his hair, Jesus - and back to that horrible room in his office. This time he didn't sit Jack down in the chair; the first thing he did was break it over Jack's back.

The heavy blow, at least, made Jack's head so numb and buzzing that he barely felt the next few. He was half leaning against the wall, half trying to shield himself, when he became aware of the most awful, guttural howling sound; someone put that thing out of its misery, he thought, and then realised it was him.

"I take you in, give you a roof over your head and the discipline you need, and you attack my guests?" raged Snyder, blurred and terrible. He kicked Jack in the stomach and he lost his grip on the wall, crashing, feeling bile in his throat.

"I should just kill you, boy." Snyder was suddenly much quieter. He rested his boot on Jack's chest and delivered enough pressure to make his eyes pop. "I should kill you and show your newsies you're just as man as they are."

Jack dredged up a blood-stained snarl. One of his molars was gone. "M'more of a man...th'you." he panted out, and Snyder broke three of his ribs with one deft stamp.

Now Jack was loud, loud enough to be heard by someone in the street, let alone the other boys in the building; and when Snyder flicked his knife out of his belt, the sound it produced out of Jack was enough to nearly burst his own eardrums. He'd lost control of his strike, of his boys and now of himself, and that was what scared him the most - what if he never regained control? What if he was this base, bleeding creature for the rest of his life?

When it was over - hours later, it seemed - Jack knew he wasn't doing too well. Even Snyder looked a little shocked, like he'd lost just as much control as Jack.

He couldn't move. He felt like Crutchie, stranded on flare-up days in the lodging house, or Davey - voiceless and therefore without his greatest gift.

He was never going to see Davey again. That little whistling wheezing "No!" the other boy had uttered when Jack had been stolen away was the last kind word Jack would hear, he was sure of it.

Snyder was staring at him. The shock was gone, replaced with disgust. "Get up."

Jack spat out blood and vomit, unable to do more than turn his head so it wouldn't get on his stained and tattered clothes. "Can't.' he said with difficulty. The ceiling was spinning ferociously.

Snyder, uncaring, hauled him up, eking a hiss of protest and pain from Jack as he tried to support his destroyed form. "Walk, Kelly," the warden commanded, giving him a rough shove. "You leave this room yourself or you don't leave."

Jack shuffled forwards and then fell before his third step, catching himself on his elbows just in time with a crack of bone on concrete. Snyder sighed, like an annoyed mother, like Davey when Les skinned his knees, and Jack felt a hysterical giggle rise in his throat.

"Then crawl."

And he did. Jack dragged himself through the Refuge in a haze thinking that if he was gonna die it sure as hell wasn't gonna be in Snyder's office, where no one would ever know what had happened. He was gonna die with his friends.

He kept the mantra with every inch he covered, eyes shut and blind: I want to die with my friends.

But Snyder didn't bring him back to the other boys. They passed the door - Jack so dogged in his determination that he didn't notice - and came to a larger one. It had a real window and oh, it was snowing, and it was beautiful. It was less beautiful when Snyder opened the door and freezing air made him shunt back

. "Wait." Jack tried to mumble, realising - having heard rumours - and there was a kick to his back, sending him out. Snow was piled on the stairs, and another kick sent him down them.

Jack stared at the swirling storm, stinging his eyes, the snow numbing his pain like an affectionate touch. He knew Snyder was talking, but his ears were blocked and humming comfortably.

"You run off and sleep now, boy. Somewhere off my grounds." Snyder looked tired; one of his fingernails had broken off of Jack's teeth and he rubbed it absentmindedly. "I don't need the press of another body."

Jack didn't realise when the doors closed; in his head he was saying to himself 'I'm free!' and then 'get help!' and then he simply could not string the words together. I want to die with my friends, Jack thought miserably, and shut his eyes.

Chapter Text

Davey spent the few hours after Jack was taken away with his hands on his ears, curled into a tight ball next to Crutchie, while both of them flinched at every sound they heard. There were unearthly, animalistic screeches and a low voice saying inaudible words, thudding and slamming; they must have been directly above the Manhattan room.

He wanted to match Jack scream for scream. He wanted to burst out of his skin and never hear the sounds he was hearing again; he was being choked by noise, just as painful as brutish hands, infinitely more permanent.

When it stopped, when it ceased, Racetrack pried Davey's hands off his ears. "It's over, Mouth." he said, eyes dry but pained. "It's over."

Davey's throat worked, still damaged. "I don't understand," he managed to rasp, but the problem was that he did. Crutchie keened against his shoulder, his hands flying to his busted leg, and to his chest like that hurt even more.

Race had taken off his cap. "He's gone, Davey." His voice was rough and empty. "Jack's dead."

-

Blind, and deaf, and paralysed, and so fucking cold, cold enough that he couldn't feel that he was cold anymore. The blood trickling and freezing and setting was, for brief moments, painfully hot on his skin.

Jack twitched his fingers, forced in a ragged breath of air. He had crawled away from the Refuge - or he'd been moved, which was more likely - beside some dumpster or something, where a snowdrift was gathering and weighing heavy. He imagined he could hear his bones creak under it. He imagined he could feel his body at all; the only slick, pulsing sensation was pain that he could not trace to its exact source.

Davey was crouching in front of him suddenly, neck unbruised, little snowflakes on his dark hair as he grinned, unbroken. Jack could feel ice cracking and splitting his lower lip. "D'vey," he mumbled, and just as it had come the apparition scattered.

Extry! Extry! Young boy found frozen on the street! You heard it right here!

Jack let his head loll, and fell into another shuddering sleep.

-

"Are you sure about this, Spot?"

Plumber was all flighty and nervous. It made Spot kinda want to slap her because hey, that had business to do, and he had a boy to see.

"Ain't you never planned a heist before?" he scoffed. "You is shaking like a leaf."

"It's cold." Plumber said lamely, and then pulled her coat around herself and seemed to rally. "Father - I mean, Pulitzer told me he visited the Refuge and said everything was being taken care of. I don't - know what that means."

"Yeah, means Jackie-boy is two steps away from a shallow grave," Spot muttered, but he didn't say it out loud because that kind of talk wasn't proper for a lady. Instead he replied, "Let's just hurry a little, alright?"

Her face was statuesque again and instilled more confidence in Spot. "So, I'll interview Snyder. Say I want to hear his side."

"Dumb bull is so thick he'll believe it. You treat him to dinner or something, and my boys'll be waiting at the Refuge for him to leave."

Plumber looked a little doubtful now. "Are you sure Brooklyn newsies are enough to raid an institution?"

Spot just grinned. His mind was full of pleasant things and Racetrack, optimistically imagining the other boy would forgive him one day - he had to, right? The alternative was unthinkable, and so Spot would not think of it, only of the release that would come so soon.

"Lady, if we wanted," he cracked his hands apart, made the shape of a round held world, "we could raid the whole damn city."

Chapter Text

There was this one day Jack remembered so clearly he knew he'd have it the rest of his life: the day he'd come to own Manhattan. While Spot's bloody scramble to power had been won with his fists, Jack had earned it fair and square, but it still hurt - just not in the same ways.

Bits had been coming on nineteen then, and selling paperswas only really a gimmick that worked for kids. He'd been packing up his stuff, watched by solemn eyes, heading to a factory in New Jersey when he'd paused, turned and locked eyes with Jack.

Jack had been fifteen, weeks out of a recent stay in the Refuge, scarred and angry and full of blame to throw at anyone who'd stand still long enough. Bits had smiled at him like a father and he'd shifted restlessly at the prospect of losing a hero.

"Cowboy's in charge, boys. See ya."

That was all he had said. They'd never seen him again - Jack had tried to contact him once, but since he only knew him by a nickname he might as well have dropped off the face of the earth. Jack had spent years trying to figure out why he'd been chosen, haunted by the memory of the old leader grown too big for his whole life - haunted by the gaping hole that was his life after the newsies.

He'd had months, maybe, after the strike, till he'd be too old and he'd have to move on. Now he might not make it there, and wouldn't that sort everything out?

Buried in snow ten feet from hell on earth a blue, aching hand twitched, scratched at nothing, and fell still.

-

Katherine was nervous.

Katherine was rarely nervous, at least not outwardly; she prided herself on being the opposite of the stereotypes of weak-willed woman she was constantly compared to, but standing in front of Warden Snyder had her fingers twisting together like water-rags. She did her best to stand up straight under his flat-eyed glare.

"And so, you see," she continued, proud to hear her voice unshaking, "The Sun would like to hear from a man who deals with the newsies on a daily basis, to gain insight into the unlawful implications of the strike."

Snyder rocked back in his chair, fingers steepled, so reptilian. "Aren't you that bleeding heart reporter?" he said slowly, suspiciously. "I could have sworn you showed up here before."

Katherine smiled tightly, thanking God that she'd had the presence of mind to hide her hair in her hat; that at least made her less distinctive. "You must be mistaken, sir."

"Well, alright, we'll see about it then. Do you need it now?"

"Yes, please, sir." Katherine couldn't believe it; Snyder must be unimaginably vain if he was willing to believe her less than imaginative story. She decided not to push it - quit while you're ahead - and waited for him open the door for her, figuring if she played the helpless woman it would make him more inclined to listen.

When his hand closed around the doorknob, she saw nicks on his knuckles and a split nail - cracked with the force of a blow, was the only thing she could think of. Katherine shut her eyes briefly; they were surely running out of time.

-

Crouched on a rooftop with five of his right-hand guys, Spot watched Plumber and Snyder walk off down the road. The Spider made his skin crawl, and he didn't like to be afraid, so he focused his attention back on the Refuge.

"Tell me what you're gonna do," he commanded, for what must have been the fourth time, and Twitch sighed a little but obeyed.

"Go to the door, pretend I's hurt, knock out the guard and then hold it open for the others."

"And then?"

"When we's all in, split up for lookouts and stuff and then go to the second room on the right of the first floor like you said."

"And then?"

"Pick the lock and let em out. Jesus, Spot, we ain't stupid."

Spot shoved at him; Twitch was the only one apart from Race who could get away with speaking to him like that. At the thought his chest burned painfully, almost unwilling to face Racetrack again in case - in case -

But it wasn't about repairing his own relationship, however badly he wanted to; it was about righting a wrong, penance for a sin. Spot kept that in his head as they scaled down the fire escape, hid themselves in alleys around the Refuge in preparation; make it right, make it right. Make it right.

While he watched Twitch knock and fake-wail at the door, he checked all his boys were in position - seventeen pairs of eyes gleaming through the gloom - and went to lean against the wall. He tripped over something, and had to muffle a swear at his clumsiness - he couldn't swallow the second one when he saw what it was.

"Jesus fucking Christ." Spot said softly, and fell to his knees beside the motionless, destroyed, apocalyptic form of Jack Kelly.

Chapter Text

"-y. Kelly!"

Snyder had come back for him. Jack had half-hoped he would, just so he wouldn't be so cold anymore, and he wouldn't have to fade so slowly and so painfully. He couldn't open his eyes; they were swollen or he was too tired, and he didn't mind, because he didn't want that man to be the last face he saw. He pictured Davey, all hazy in his shaking brain - now that there was heaven. That was all he needed.

"Jesus, Jackie-boy, come on!"

But Snyder never called him that, so Jack tried to look, but he just couldn't. It had stopped snowing and the air was still and dead on his face; he tried to speak, to ask, and only let out a whine.

"It's Spot Conlon, Jack. God, fucking God."

Spot Conlon - if Spot was here then surely he was getting Jack's boys out of the Refuge. Jack dragged his eyes open and saw blurry black sky, the wiry figure of the king of Brooklyn stark against it. Somewhere in the distance, there was some sort of commotion.

Spot's face was whiter than Jack had ever seen. "I think he's dyin'," he said to someone behind him, "he looks like he's already dead but still blinking."

"Get him out of the snow!"

"I can't move him, he's too heavy. Get some more of the boys!"

Jack, exhausted, let his eyes slide closed again and lost it all.

-

When it came down to it, their big rescue was pretty anti-climatic. Spot's newsies had already secured the Refuge by the time someone came to the Mahattan newsies, and then all they had to do was walk - or in Crutchie's case, much to his discomfort, be carried - out. It was frustratingly easy.

Davey should have been thrilled - but Davey should have been with Jack.

He couldn't muster up the slightest bit of joy, or emotion of any kind - everything was grey, even the much-awaited outside world. His throat ached and his chest hurt and yeah, they'd gotten out, but Davey would say that in the end they'd lost. He'd lost everything. He wondered where Jack's body was, if they'd even be able to have a funeral. and tried to hold Les' hand tight enough. Davey still had to be alive for everyone else, he knew that, but oh God. That muffling silence where Jack should be -

His name was being murmured around him for a whole minute before Davey noticed. Spot was standing in front of him, shivering, looking lost and scared and so unlike what Davey had remembered that it almost stirred him from his stupor.

"We got a situation." the other boy said stiffly. "He's a few doors down."

When Spot let Davey followed dutifully. He figured one of the boys had been injured in the breakout or maybe there had been a fight and that he should care, he should fight this numbess, so Davey followed.

The second they entered the tenement, Davey smelled the beginnings of a roaring fire. He opened his mouth to ask why he was here, and then a scream rose in it like a star - a disbelieving, all-consuming tide crested to the point of agony in his chest and he stood dumb and still, like a man in the presence of a miracle.

Jack was sprawled on a low cot, his slack and his fingers and bare feet blue. He'd been beaten to the point it looked like murder, and Davey would believe it had been if not for the slow rise and fall of his chest.

As he stared, solemn with shock, Jack twitched and groaned, and Davey felt like he was looking at the rarest thing on Earth. Spot poked at the fire and then spoke and Davey jerked, having forgotten he was even there.

"Found him buried in snow. Wasn't more'n fifteen feet from the building - think Snyder was trying to avoid having to write a death cert on his property."

Jack, injured and lone, crawling in the storm. Rage bounded through Davey and then died as he was filled with overwhelming relief. His feet carried him to Jack's side without himself even realising and he touched the other boy's face - his crooked jaw. There was a bruise on his forehead that was the loveliest shade of lilac.

"Jackie," he said, his throat on fire, and started to cry.

Davey and Spot spent hours warming Jack back up - he felt more like marble than human, and it wasn't until they had him wrapped in enough blankets to swaddle a giant that colour returned to his hands and feet. His left hand was still all stiff, and no amount of coaxing with heat would render it usable.

Boots dropped by in the night to tell them that Katherine had covered their tracks with Snyder and that the Manhattan boys were back at the lodging house, and to bring food and yet more blankets. It was risky to be camped out so close to the Refuge, but Jack was in no state to be moved. His breathing was just a little too slow, and he still hadn't woken and more obviously, well; Snyder must have treated him like they were in a dogfight.

(Davey had to take a break when he found the carvings in Jack's back, the thin red lines that snaked around his vertebrae to spell the word 'Francis'; he didn't want to know what that name meant, and he didn't want to imagine its formation.)

It took until morning for Jack to wake up, and it was accompanied by him getting sick all over himself. Spot cleaned it up, surprisingly patient, while Davey sat at Jack's head and tried to keep him conscious.

"Stay awake, Jackie," he said softly, stroking his face, the slash on his temple, "you lazy thing. Stay awake."

Jack looked confused - Davey had assumed a concussion - and only blinked back at him. "M'not lazy," was all he slurred, and then he settled back into sleep. Spot sighed, sharp and frustrated, and threw his rag down.

"I don't like still being on this street, Mouth."

"I know." Davey wasn't exactly thrilled about it either. "If we had a wagon, or- "

"Or a carriage specifically designed for fast and discreet transport, such a a government man's?"

The interruption made both of them jump, Spot swinging to fight and Davey gripped the side of Jack's cot in a protective but useless action. Instead of Snyder, Davey saw -

"Ms Medda," he grinned broadly, the first stroke of luck in what it seemed like years. "Where have you been?"

Chapter Text

"You stupid, self-centered scab -"

"Race -"

"- no respect for anyone but yourself, look at me, I'm the king of Brooklyn, I'm the biggest fucking asshole there is -"

"Racetr-"

" - how can you look me in the eyes right now? You ruined everything, you nearly killed us, all for a few streets, God, they're just PAPERS, Spot -"

"Tony -"

"You shut up -"

Davey was trying very hard not to listen to Spot and Racetrack's conversation, but it was difficult not to when Race was screaming and Spot was slamming his fist into the wall and both of them were, well, one thin wall away. Medda had let them keep Jack in the theatre for the time being, and Spot and Race were fighting right on the stage.

Davey focused instead on redressing the bloody letters on Jack's back. He'd still barely woken up, so Davey had to basically move him around like a six foot two doll - a doll that snored and twitched and weighed far too much for Davey to comfortably maneuver.

Maybe he was complaining about it because he missed the conscious Jack; maybe it was because the letters on Jack's spine were scarring and his left hand was bone-white and seemingly numb. Davey spent most of the time he wasn't taking care of Jack wondering how Jack would react when he woke up and found himself - Davey was never going to say damaged. Jack Kelly couldn't be damaged; it would be like bleeding a stone.

Davey stroked his thumb over Jack's cheekbone and sighed, listening to the fight next door rage on. Soon, he'd wake up. Soon.

-

Jack was having the most incredible dream. He was lying in the sun in his penthouse, stretched out on the warmest, goldest spot of the roof, with Crutchie on his left purring in the heat like a cat.

"This is the life," Crutchie groaned, flinging his arms out and sending his crutch skittering away; he was having a good day with his leg, so Jack knew it wouldn't be too much of a hardship to get it back. "Where's the Mouth?"

Jack kept his eyes shut against the glare. "Family stuff." He craned his neck towards Crutchie. "Why you asking?" he asked suspiciously.

Crutchie just laughed. "He ain't all yours, pal."

"I know that." Jack grumbled. "I just didn't know yous was close."

"He's close with you, he's close with me." Crutchie fumbled for his hand and squeezed it tightly. "You know we's family."

"Yeah." Jack finally looked up and saw blinding blue sky and nothing else, an infinity of possibility, where the only thing that hurt was his eyes from how damn bright it was. "I know."

The blue faded then, the dream dissolving, and Jack dropped back into the waking world with a shudder. The pain hit him like a ton of bricks and he heard himself groan; he tried to sit up and it hurt, oh God, it hurt so much.

"Jesus," he coughed out, mystery cuts pulling at the skin of his back when he thudded back down onto the bed. "Fuck. Ow."

"Jackie, hey, stay awake this time, c'mon, alright?"

Jack froze; he knew that voice, even though it was scratchy and wavering and really butchering whatever Davey was trying to say and - oh!

"Davey," he said, feeling stupid and inarticulate, and looked up into his bright blue sky again, this time so much more beautiful than anything his dreams could do. Jack tried to reach up and touch and then hissed, dropping his arm back.

"Stay still," Davey huffed. He fussed around Jack pulling up blankets - they were pink, where the hell was he? - and then brushed Jack's hair back. The simple touch made him want to sob. "You got soaked pretty good."

It came back in a rush - the Refuge and the beating and the snow - and Jack reached half-behind him, remembering the slip of the knife - the branding, the name he had left behind -

"Davey, baby, wha's happening now?" he asked, shaken to the point of clutching the sheets. His head swam like a muggy fog and something smelled terrible. "What the hell happened?"

Davey soothed the pain off his face with a squeeze of his hand. "We're at Medda's. Katherine is writing a pretty damning article about Snyder, the boys are at the lodging and Spot and Race were fighting but they've gone all quiet."

Jack raised an eyebrow and Davey sighed, nodding. "Either that or they're killing each other."

"Maybe both." Jack shifted, uncomfortable with too many sore spots to put pressure on anywhere. His left hand came to his attention when he tried to scratch his leg and the fingers barely moved; it was a sickly white.

Davey bit his lip, a nervous tic Jack knew well. "Jackie," he said, so soft, "you were in the snow a real long time -"

Jack hid the offending hand back under the covers, unable and unwilling to deal with it. He swallowed hard, and mustered up a smile for Davey instead and let himself say "I love you." It was an apology and a promise to do better.

Davey ducked his head and kissed Jack as gently as it seemed he could. When he pulled away again, Jack frowned; that bad smell was getting worse, like something burning. Rubber. His head ached heavily again.

The next events happened in quick succession. Davey went across the room to get them both water; Jack's tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth; his eyes rolled back and then with an electrifying, God-defying jerk, he began to seize.

Chapter Text

In the days that followed, Davey would come to describe to Jack, in detail only the Walking Mouth would possess, exactly what had happened that day. He told Jack that he'd turned around because of the guttural grunting noise Jack was making, and had seen him spasming and jerking like a puppet on a string. Davey said he'd been slamming his head into the side of the cot with each movement; his eyes were far away when he recalled the tendons jumping in Jack's neck.

Ep-lepsy, or whatever Medda's fancy doctor had said, had taken over his brain or something; Jack wasn't too sure what it actually meant. All he knew was that that was why he had blank spaces in his memories of the day he reunited with Davey, that was why he had a knot behind his ear and - humiliatingly - that was why when he woke up Davey had changed his trousers.

Recovery was going to be hard enough anyway, Jack thought bitterly and often, without something in his brain eating his time. He'd all but lost his left hand, for Christ's sake. Race had to make the new crutch, which had always been the thing Jack did for his oldest friend, and it stung.

Crutchie at least had bounced back just like always, with a crooked nose and a chipped tooth they'd never be able to get fixed. Les, too, was almost the same - maybe a little older than he had been before the ordeal, but subtly enough Jack could pretend he wasn't - and the rest of his boys had scrambled back to full health simply because they had to. No one was going to coddle them in this life, as much as Jack tried to.

Yes, everyone was moving on, and Jack was sitting on his bed terrified of smelling burning rubber. He'd only had the one seizure - and Davey had said hopefully that it may have been a one-time thing - but he couldn't shake the feeling of weakness it had brought. He couldn't shake the frightened child Snyder had made him into, like he was still screaming and struggling in that filthy office room, always alone.

Davey knew. Davey was the only other one who'd come so close to death and even though they'd had different experiences Jack knew Davey still woke up at night like he did - he'd seen it. Davey's nails in his own neck, fighting something always out of reach. Different nightmares in the same bed. Scratching frantically at each other for comfort.

As Jack got better, he was expected to be the same, bum hand or not; he was right-handed anyway, right? He hadn't had a seizure since that one time, right? It wasn't until the next one floored him on the rooftop - making him piss himself, God, he was so ashamed to not even remember it - that the other newsies realised maybe something had gone wrong in between the Refuge and the return to the lodging house. His boys were fiercely protective; they pooled money to get Jack back to the doctor and get fancy pills that tasted bad, got him a paper-carrying bag he only needed one hand to open, and it dredged a smile from him. His whole life smelled like burning rubber and sounded like the click of a key in a heavy prison door.

So when Davey told him he was going back to school, Jack nearly pushed him through the door; opportunity, sweet mercy, to save his lover from the life he himself was failing at. Race went to Brooklyn less as it was, needed as Jack's right-hand man as Jack himself deteriorated inwardly; no one else would give up anything for him, Jack swore.

But then Katherine dropped by and brought Jack to her apartment, and he cried for hours. Ace was a rare impartial party in his life, far away from the politics of the street kids, and she listened with a patience that defied reason. When he was done she gave him a moment and afterwards said calmly, "Did you get out alive?"

Jack barked out a sobbing laugh. "Yeah, but -"

Her eyes flashed, indelible. "Then act like it, Mr Kelly."

His pills tasted like chalk; he put them in his easy-access bag and brought them everywhere. He met Davey at his school gates, trussed up in a tie Jack loved to pull on, and talked about his future - their future. Jack started to look at illustration advertisements; Davey said he wanted to be a lawyer, to strike for the rest of his life. 60 cents per hundred became 55 and then, finally, back to 50; Jack figured Katherine's articles had something to do with it. Race went to Brooklyn nightly again and Jack felt too big for his life, his dead hand and broken brain. Growing pains pushed under his skin like something new and exciting ready to burst out of him.

"He don't own me," Jack told Davey whenever he would listen, which was always. "Snyder don't get to control anything I do anymore."

The name on his back was fading into twisted silver lines. Davey traced them and kissed down his spine every night, especially on days where Jack lost time and woke up sore-muscled on the ground. When that happened, Davey would roll his uniform sleeves up and lift Jack's head into his lap and then those evenings, he'd always ask in a teasing sort of way, "So what's next, Jackie?"

Jack would always laugh and flick Davey's neck, clear of bruises and catching light on its curve, incurably lovely. "Kid," and he'd shut his eyes tight, "you ain't seen nothing yet."