Albert and Race both looked up at the telltale bang of the door that told the house that Jack was home from work.
"Race!" the leader shouted, coming down the hallway.
Race flinched at the tone. What's he mad about? he wondered.
Albert nudged his friend. "What'd ya do?" he asked.
"Nothin'!" Race protested. He had headed straight home from school and started his homework. He hadn't smoked a cigar in weeks. Sure, he had thrown a few erasers at Albert as they were working, but they had been working hard for the most part, and he had even helped Romeo get his homework done. That's gotta count for somethin', right?
Jack appeared in the doorway, crossing his arms over his chest. "Race," he said in a careful, even tone. "Did ya drive today?"
Oh. That. "Who's askin'?" Race said, sending Jack a winning grin. Spot called that his gambler's grin. It was the one he wore when he was bluffing his way through a round of poker, or trying to charm his way into some girl's skirts.
Jack glared at him. "You're right, I don't need ta ask," he said. "I saw ya go flyin' past me by the school today."
Race's cocky charm fell flat. "The... the school?"
"Yeah," Jack said. "Ya were pushin' fifty, Race!"
Fifty-three, Race corrected internally. Okay, that would be a good thing not ta say...
"Please tell me ya were alone in the car," Jack said, making eye contact with Race. He knew his brother, and he knew that for all his poker experience, it was nearly impossible for Race to lie to Jack.
Guilt flashed behind the Italian's blue eyes, and Jack had his answer. He sighed, turning away, and Race immediately jumped to his own defense. "What'd ya want me ta do, make Romeo walk?"
"He's been walkin' for twelve years!" Jack retorted. "It ain't killed him yet!"
"He wasn't walkin' when he was a baby, Jack," Race said, appalled by the stupidness of his older brother.
Jack rolled his eyes. "That ain't the point, Race!" he said, raising his voice. "You'se fifteen. Ya barely have your permit, let alone your license. You'se not supposta drive yourself alone, and forget about takin' the boys with ya."
"I drive with you," Race pointed out.
"That's different and ya know it," Jack countered. "I'm teachin' ya how ta drive. From now on, ya only touch that wheel if I'm in the front seat. Not the boys, not by yourself. Just me."
"That ain't fair, Jack!" Race said, an unmistakable whine creeping into his voice. He was fighting a losing battle, and he knew it. "I paid for that car, so I'se gonna drive it whenever I want!"
They faced each other in silence for a few tense moments. Race didn't even realize that he had risen from his chair, and that he and Jack were now standing face to face, eyes locked and hands balled into fists. Normally at this point they got physical, with Race making the first move, and Jack shoving him back against the wall and holding him there until he had stopped fighting. Race was ready for that; he craved it. A chance to blow off some steam, for the hot-headed Italian to vent his frustrations to his older brother. But what Jack did next surprised him.
"Gimme the keys, Race," he said quietly.
Race blinked, some of the tension leaving his body. "What?"
"Ya heard me," Jack said. "I can't trust ya ta drive safe, so I'se takin' your keys until I can."
Race fell back a step, caught off guard. Numbly, he fished the car keys out of his pocket and handed them over.
Jack took them silently, and Race scowled as he dropped into his chair. He didn't look up as the older boy left the room and instead hunched over his homework. Jack's words played over in his head.
I don't trust you.
Shooting a glare at Albert, Race pitched an eraser at his head. "What're you lookin' at?" he demanded, angry tears standing in his eyes. Dashing them away, he stuck a cigar in his mouth and lit it.
"Jack don't like that..." Albert started, but he fell silent when the older boy glared at him. Race started working on his math homework, pressing the pencil down so hard he left indents in the table.
"C'mon, kid," Race said the next morning, hitching his backpack over his shoulder and tugging a baseball cap over his messy curls. "We'se gotta get goin' if we're both gonna get ta school on time."
"Aw, Race," Romeo whined. "Can't we play a little longer?"
"Nope," Jack said, leaning in the doorway. "If Race is gonna drop ya off at the middle school and still make it ta class on time you'se gonna hafta get goin'." Romeo frowned. "Aw, c'mon kid," Jack said, messing up his hair. "Race, ya gotta handle on this one?"
"I always do, don't I?" Race shot back.
Jack sighed. Still mad. Got it. "I'se gonna go take care a' the others, then." Technically Mr. Kloppman was in charge of their group home, but the man was so old that Jack did practically everything but pay the bills, including get all the boys up and ready for school.
"I hate seventh grade," Romeo complained, watching Jack leave. "I can't wait 'til I'm in high school like you."
The gambler grinned, ruffling his little brother's hair. "Believe me kid, high school ain't any better," he said. "C'mon, do like Jack says." Bumping Romeo's shoulder with his, he headed downstairs, turning back to make sure the younger boy was actually following him.
With a sigh, Romeo took the stairs one at a time, dragging his backpack down each step. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. Stopping for a moment, he turned a woeful look to his big brother.
Race cursed under his breath. He never could resist that puppy dog stare. "Alright, kid," he said. "If I drive ya, will ya wipe that look off your face?"
Romeo's whole expression changed in a matter of seconds. "Yes!" he shouted, jumping on the banister and sliding the rest of the way down.
Race caught him at the bottom, laughing. "Just don't tell Jack, okay?" he said. "It'll be our secret."
"Got it!" Romeo said, his eyes sparkling with the excitement of keeping a secret. "C'mon Race, let's go, let's go, let's go!" He grabbed his brother's hand, dragging him towards the door.
Race laughed again, freeing his hand from Romeo's grip. "Hold on, kid, I'se gotta get my keys." I ain't neva' met a kid who could go from sulkin' ta bouncin' off the walls in three seconds flat, he thought, looking fondly at his little brother. Just Romeo.
Once he had dropped Romeo off at school, Race hung out in the high school parking lot, smoking a cigar and killing time until he heard the first bell ring. He usually slid into his seat just as the late bell was ringing, and he didn't want to make Jack suspicious by getting there early.
After school wouldn't be a problem. Jack always left right at three to work the afternoon shift at Jacobi's, so it would be easy to sneak past him. He would leave the high school at 3:05, get Romeo by 3:10, and be home by 3:20.
Simple as that, he thought smugly, walking through the doors just as the second bell rang its toll.
Race fished his keys out of his pocket and unlocked his car. It had been so easy to lift the keys off of Jack that morning. He had left them on the counter where anyone could take them. A little part of Race had felt guilty as he took them -He's keepin' 'em in plain sight. That means he trusts ya- but he pushed it back. He said he didn't trust ya, he told himself firmly. And afta' all, it's my car. I paid for it and everythin'.
Race was immensely proud of his car. He had found it cheap, but it had still taken weeks of doing chores around the house and odd jobs at the theatre to pay off. He and Spot had spent several weekend together fixing it up in Brooklyn, and now it was finally street-ready. I'se worked too hard for Jack ta just take it away like I'm some kid!
"Race?" a voice said curiously, startling him out of his thoughts.
Race whirled around. Crutchie. Dang it. "Heya, Crutch," he said casually. "I'm about ta pick Romeo up from school. Ya wanna ride?"
Crutchie hesitated, still unsure. "What'd Jack say?"
"Jack said I should be more safe," Race said with certainty. "And don't worry, I am." He didn't bother telling the crippled boy the rest of Jack's words. He'd just take Jack's side, anyways. 'Sides, this way if someone tells Jack he can't get mad at me. Crutchie's leg's been hurtin' 'im these past couple days, and I can say I'se just helpin' him. That's what a good big brother'd do, and I'se gotta be a good big brother, right?
When they got to the middle school, Romeo practically dove into the backseat. "Race, let's go, let's go, let's go!" he said, bouncing up and down.
"Seat belt first," Race said, unmoving. See Jack? he thought smugly. I'm doin' everythin' right. He made sure Romeo sat in the back, he checked that both his brothers had their seat belts on, he made sure to go the speed limit...
"Race, can we go on the roller coaster hills?" Romeo begged.
Race grinned at him in the rearview mirror, considering the request. The roller coaster hills was a stretch of country road filled with twists, turns, ups, and downs. It wasn't much, but to a twelve-year-old foster kid who had never set foot in a theme park, it was the best thing in the world. The detour would take them a little out of their way, but they still had some time before Jack got off work. We can make it.
"Roller coaster hills it is!" Race declared, making the turn.
"Be careful, Race," Crutchie said uneasily. "Jack always-"
"Jack ain't here," Race cut him off firmly. A part of him felt a little guilty- Crutchie hadn't been there yesterday. He didn't know that invoking Jack wasn't the smartest thing to do around Race at the moment. Shaking his head, Race brushed the guilt off and ignored the sick feeling building in his stomach. "Ya worry too much, Crutchie."
"Faster, Race!" Romeo yelled.
"Race, I don't think ya should," Crutchie warned. He had a white-knuckled grip on the the armrests of his seat, and the twists and turns were starting to get to him.
"Just a little faster won't hurt nothin'," Race said with false confidence. He pressed harder on the gas, and he was rewarded by a shout of delight from Romeo. With a grin, the Italian glanced back over his shoulder to see the younger boy's excitement for himself... and that was his first mistake.
The road turned sharply ahead, but the car kept going forward. In the two seconds they were airborne, Race felt his seat belt lock into place, jolting him back as he threw out an arm to keep Crutchie in his seat. He heard the gimp boy's sharp intake of breath and his panicked yell of "Race!"
Then everything seemed to move much faster as the car crashed into the ditch. For one horrible, horrible second, everything was deathly silent... and then Romeo started to cry. In a way it was a good thing, because it made Race snap into action. Shoving away the airbag, he twisted around to look both his brothers in the eye. "Are you okay?" he demanded. His wrist, still resting against Crutchie's chest, was throbbing, but he ignored it. "Romeo, are you okay?"
Still sobbing, the dark-haired boy nodded.
"Crutchie, are you okay?" the Italian asked next.
Crutchie was crying too, silent tears, but he managed a nod. "I... I'm okay," he said, clutching Race's sleeve tighter.
Race couldn't hide his wince. "Good," he said, easing his injured wrist out of Crutchie's grasp. He breathed a sigh of relief, both at the lessening of the pain and the fact that his brothers were safe. "Romeo," he said next, making eye contact with his younger brother in the mirror. "Take my phone. Get outta the car and call for help."
"I don't care, just call for help!" Race snapped. Catching a glimpse of Romeo's frightened expression, he took a deep breath. "I'se gotta get Crutchie outta the car," he said. "Can ya call for help, Rome?"
"Yeah," Romeo said carefully, scrubbing at his tears and taking Race's phone. "Yeah, I can do that."
As the younger boy ran up to the roadside to dial the number, Race unbuckled his seat belt and climbed over the hood to get to the passenger side door. He winced, pausing for a second to take in the damage to his car, and immediately scolded himself for it. That ain't important right now. Nothin's important right now 'cept gettin' these two somewhere safe.
"Hold on ta your crutch an' put your arms around my neck," he instructed. Crutchie did as he was told, and as he lifted him Race could feel the younger boy shaking. He carried him up to the side of the road, setting him down just before his wrist gave out.
As soon as he was let go, Crutchie threw himself back into Race's arms, letting the older boy's shirt soak up his tears. "Hey, it's okay," Race said, wrapping an arm around the trembling boy's shoulders. He held the other arm out, beckoning Romeo closer. The kid didn't need an invitation. He ran to his brother, locking his arms around his waist and burying his face in Race's side.
Race held them both tight, his sore hand resting in Crutchie's hair while his good hand traced circles on Romeo's back. The calming gestures worked, and the two younger boy's had wound down some by the time a familiar, dark green pickup truck swung around the corner. Race's blue eyes widened, and he cursed under his breath.
Jack slammed the car door closed, his long legs eating up the distance between him and his boys. "Are you okay?" he asked anxiously. "Romeo, Crutchie, are ya okay?" Romeo sniffled and nodded, not letting go of Race. "What about you, Crutchie?" Jack asked, gripping the younger boy by the shoulders and checking him over.
"I'm fine, Jack," Crutchie whispered.
Jack breathed a sigh of relief, pulling all three of them into a crushing hug. "Racetrack, what the hell were you thinkin'?" he demanded a few seconds later.
Race fell back a step. "Jack, I-"
"What'd I say, Race?" Jack cut him off. "I said not ta touch that wheel if I wasn't there. This is the worst thing ya coulda done, Race, and ya went ahead and did it!"
"Jack, I'm sorry!" Race said, hating the way his voice cracked.
"Sorry don't cut it anymore, Race!" Jack shouted, making the younger boy flinch. "Crutchie and Romeo coulda died today! Didja even think of that, or were ya too busy showin' off?" He turned away, taking a deep breath and rubbing his eyes with his sleeve. "Just get in the car," he said finally. He waved his hand. "All of ya, get in the car."
Romeo and Crutchie climbed into Jack's truck while the Manhattan leader walked around Race's car, surveying the damage. After giving it a onceover, he pulled out his phone and dialed a number. Race remained where he was, stunned. "Crutchie and Romeo coulda died, Race!" Jack was right. They could've died. My little brothers could've died and it would've been my fault. The blond-haired Italian pressed his hand to his mouth to stifle a sob.
"Spot's comin' ta tow the car," Jack said, coming up from the ditch. He jerked his head toward the truck. "Get in. I'se gotta help Crutchie." He quickened his steps, not noticing the state Race was in.
Keeping his head down, Race checked to make sure Romeo was safely buckled in in back. He wasn't prepared for the younger kid to launch himself at him as soon as he was within arm's distance. "Don't do that again, okay Race?" he pleaded.
Race's heart caught in his throat. This day was having the opposite effect he had intended. Jack was right, he liked to show off. He liked having Romeo look at him the way the other boys looked at Jack, like he was some kind of hero. He liked being that person for someone, but that was all gone now.
With a slight hiccup, Romeo wiped his nose on Race's sleeve. Race let him. After all he had put the kid through, he owed him that much. Keeping his eyes down and squirming under Jack's gaze, Race climbed into the front and buckled his seat belt.
Just as Jack started the car, a police car sped around the bend, sirens off but lights flashing. Jack swore under his breath, letting his head fall back to hit the headrest.
"It ain't my fault!" Romeo protested, suddenly on the defensive. "Race said ta call for help!"
"I didn't say ta call the bulls!" Race said, heat rushing to his cheeks.
"Ya didn't say anythin'!" Romeo said. "Ya just-"
"Quiet!" Jack interrupted. "Shut up, all of ya. I'll be right back. None of ya move, ya hear me?"
All three boys mumbled responses, and Jack got out of the car, steeling himself to talk to the officers. Race slouched low in his seat, closing his eyes and willing it to all just go away.
Jack spent a good half hour talking things over with the police. Race spent the whole time slumped in his seat, not making eye contact with either of his brothers. He glanced up once, and he saw Jack talking and gesturing with his hands. One of the officers was outside talking to Jack, and the other had his eyes fixed on Race and the boys in the car. Feeling his face turn red up to his ears, Race turned his gaze back to his shoes.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Jack got back in the car and the two officers drove away. Race leaned back in his seat when he saw Jack coming, pushing the brim of his hat over his eyes and kicking his feet up. "Get your feet off the dash," Jack said brusquely, starting the car.
Race did as he was told, watching his brother closely. That's it? No "Race, you okay?" No "I know ya didn't mean it?" He waited a second, his blue eyes trained on Jack's face, but Jack didn't react other than to snatch the cap off Race's head. "I ain't in the mood for this, Race," he said. "Buckle up. We don't want two accidents today."
Race set his jaw determinedly as he fastened his seatbelt. Fine then. Two can play at that game, Jack.
"Jack," Crutchie began, but the older boy cut him off, holding up a hand.
"Like I said Crutchie, I ain't in the mood," he said.
The ride home was painfully quiet, with neither of the younger boys daring to speak up and Race still stubbornly giving Jack the cold shoulder as they pulled into the driveway. Jack returned the favor, not saying a word as he helped Crutchie out of the car and handed him his crutch.
"C'mon, Romeo," the blonde boy said, holding out a hand to the kid. "Let's head upstairs."
"I wanna stay with Race," Romeo whined, still clinging to his brother like velcro.
"Race is busy," Jack said, his words short and clipped. "Go on upstairs. Get started on your homework."
"Race always helps me with my homework!" Romeo protested.
"Get Specs or Albert ta help ya," Jack said, not relenting. He held the door open for all three of them, watching as Crutchie took the stairs one at a time and Romeo followed him, dragging his feet.
"Jack, I can explain," Race said once they were alone.
Jack let the front door slam shut. "You'd better explain," he said. "Race, what were ya thinkin'? Why did ya think this was a good idea?"
"I don't know," Race said, his voice barely above a whisper.
"Ya don't know," Jack repeated. "Ya don't know! I'll tell ya what I do know, ya ain't gettin' these back any time soon!" He jangled the car keys in front of Race's face before shoving them deep in his pocket.
Race fell back a step. "Jack, I..."
"No, Race!" Jack said. "It's my turn ta talk now, and it's your turn ta listen. For once in your life, just listen ta what I hafta say!"
Race took another step backwards, landing his back against the wall. He didn't want this. He didn't want a fight with Jack. Yesterday he had, sure, but a lot had happened since then. All his frustration had burned off during that stupid little joy ride, but it looked like Jack was just getting started.
"I listen-" Race tried again, but the older boy cut him off.
"No, ya don't listen. If you'se'd listened ta me yesta'day we wouldn't be in this mess now! I'm startin' ta think ya actually like causin' trouble."
"Just stop, Jack!" Race shouted. "Ya ain't my pa. Ya ain't in charge a' me! We ain't even real brothers! Ya don't get ta tell me what ta do, an' take my car, an' make me do whateva' ya want!"
"Racetrack!" he growled, standing over his brother. The younger boy flinched, but Jack was too worked up to notice. "Who the hell took care a' ya all these years? Who convinced ya ta run away, leave your deadbeat dad behind? Who let ya in when you was knockin' on my winda at three in the mornin'? Who is it that does nothin' but protect ya, day an' night, from all the trouble your stupid self gets into-"
Race's breath caught in his throat, and he felt himself transporting back through the years.
He leaped backwards, scraping his back against the wall behind him, ducking out of reach of that figure with the piercing dark eyes, the figure who towered over him and didn't let him get a word in edgewise, yelling in his face until he thought he'd be sick from the smell of cheap whiskey. "Don't talk back ta me, boy," his father growled. "Are ya stupid, or what? Ya know what backtalk'll getcha."
He jolted back to reality before the blow fell, and shoved Jack hard in the chest. "I ain't stupid!" he objected, his temper flaring and his eyes filling with tears.
Jack barely wobbled before catching the younger boy's hands and dragging him forward. He let go as if he'd been burned when the Italian kid let out a cry of pain and watched in horror as Race sank to his knees, clutching his injured wrist to his chest. "Racer?"
"I take it back!" Race choked out, trying his best to hold back his sobs. "Let me up, I shouldn't a' said ya ain't my brother! I'm sorry!"
"Race, I ain't touchin' ya!" Jack protested, his voice rising.
"Stop, please!" the Italian boy begged. "I'll be good, I promise!"
"Racer!" Jack said loudly, the anger seeping out of him. He felt it quickly being replaced by panic. He knelt down beside his brother. "What hurts, kid?" Race could only shake his head and cry. All the excitement of the past couple hours was coming out now, and he was helpless to try and stop it. Jack's eyes darted to Race's wrist, still held tight against his chest. "Can I see?" he asked gently, reaching for his brother's arm.
In a haze, Race felt a hand tighten around his upper arm. The panic kicked in again, and he jerked away. "Get offa me!" he yelled, covering his head. "Jack, help!"
"Kid!" Jack said, letting go immediately. "Racer, look up."
He tipped Race's chin up with one finger, and the younger boy wrenched himself backwards. "Don't touch me!"
"I ain't touchin' ya," Jack said,his hands flying back. He held them both palms up where Race could see them. Look inta my eyes, kid." Race forced himself to do so, his frantic gaze meeting Jack's. Jack. Breathe, Higgins. It's okay. Jack's here. Slowly, his breathing returned to normal and he stopped his wild struggling.
"It's okay, kid," Jack said, pulling his brother into a hug. "I've gotcha." Race buried his face in his brother's shirt and pulled himself closer, not protesting when Jack picked him up and carried him easily into the kitchen. After settling Race in on a chair, he searched through cupboards for the first aid kit. "This might hurt," he warned. The blonde boy winced once, but kept silent as Jack's steady fingers gently ran over his wrist. "It ain't broken," he said finally. "Just sprained, I think. I'll wrap it up ta be safe."
Race watching quietly as Jack unrolled a bandage and began wrapping his wrist, sniffling a little as his tears subsided. Jack had a feeling they had nothing to do with the pain. "Racer, what's really goin' on?"he asked.
Race looked away. "I don't know," he said. "It's just... ya looked like my pa, Jack. Ya didn't look like you." It had been six years since Race had seen his father. Six years since Jack had convinced him to run away. Six years since Jack had become his brother and best friend, but Race still saw his father often enough in his nightmares. And in that one horrible moment, Jack had looked just like him. "I freaked out, didn't I?"
"Kinda. Racer, I'm so sorry." Jack's eyes were wide and fearful as he pulled his kid brother in for a hug. He dropped a kiss to the Italian's messy blonde hair, and was relieved when the boy didn't protest. "I love you boys, y'know that, right Race?"
"Yeah, I know," Race said with a watery smile, some of his cockiness coming back. "I'se pretty great, ain't I?"
Jack grinned. "Yeah, I'd say so," he said. Race smiled back, before loud pounding on the door made him jump.
"There's Spot," Jack said, starting to clean up his mess.
"I'll let him in," Race said, getting up reluctantly. "L..." He swallowed hard. "Love ya, Jack. See ya in 'bout half an hour?"
"Let Spot drive!" Jack called after him. "We'll finish our talk when ya gets home. No yellin', just talkin'," he hastened to add.
Yikes. That don't sound good. "I can't hear ya, Jack!" Race hollered back, grabbing his brown bomber jacket off its hook by the door. He found a cigar in the pocket and examined it for a second before sticking it in his mouth, risking a glance over his shoulder to see if Jack saw. The pounding came at the door again, harder and louder this time, and Race flung it open wide. "Heya, Spot," he greeted.
The Brooklyn leader was slouched against the wall, looking fiercely intimidating with his leather jacket and ever-present scowl. When he saw Race, he straightened up and smacked him on the back of the head. "Idiot," he said. "Come on, get in the truck."
Rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly, Race followed his friend down the driveway. "He's in good hands, Jackie-boy!" Spot called into the house as the door slammed shut.
The first few minutes of the drive were filled with awkward silence and tension so thick Race thought he would choke. Now that his conscience was clear, Race's social mind wanted to chatter to fill the silence, and seeing how unfazed Spot was was making him jittery.
Spot smirked slightly when Race started squirming in his seat, but he took the turnoff and didn't say anything. He definitely had a few choice words in store for Race, but they could wait. This was way more entertaining.
As they pulled up next to the remnant's of Race's car, Spot let out a low whistle. After a moment or two of silence, he smacked the back of Race's head again. "What the actual hell, Race? Do all those weekends spent fixin' her up mean nothin' to ya?"
"It wasn't like I tried ta crash!" Race protested. "It was an accident!"
"You gettin' behind the wheel wasn't an accident though," Spot retorted. "That was stupid, kid."
"You do stupid stuff all the time!" Race complained. "'Do whateva' ya want, just don't get caught.' Ain't that what ya always say?"
"Not when it comes ta breakin' the law, moron!" Spot said, rolling his eyes. "'Specially for you. You'se already pushin' it, kid. One more slip up like this and you'se done for."
"Lay off, Spot, no one got hurt," Race said, brushing off the threat.
In response Spot grabbed a fistful of Race's shirt, dragging him forward until the younger boy's face was inches from his own.
"Ow, Spot!" Race protested, trying to pry his shirt out of the Brooklyn boy's grasp. "Lemme go!"
Spot ignored him, digging his fingers tighter into the fabric. "Ya weren't drunk, were ya?" he asked sternly.
Race looked shocked. "What? No!"
"Were ya high?" Spot asked next.
"No!" Race said again, offended.
Spot let him go, throwing him back in his seat and smacking him again, harder this time. "Then it was your fault. Simple as that. All that smoke is messin' with your brain, Higgins." He made a grab for Race's cigar and tossed it back at his face when the younger boy protested.
"Quit it!" Race protested, sticking the cigar back in his mouth. "And it ain't all my fault. Some of it's Jack's."
Spot turned to look at him, doubting that his friend could be this stupid. "Afta' all that Kelly's done for ya, savin' your hide from the Refuge... and you'se still tryin' ta pin this on him?"
Race's resolve faltered. "The... the Refuge?" He hated the way his voice cracked when he said it, but he couldn't help himself. He hated that place. Just as often as he dreamed about his father, he saw visions of the cold iron doors of Snyder's Refuge slamming closed on him forever, and Spot knew it. "Spot, whaddaya mean? What about the Refuge?"
Spot rolled his eyes again, unbuckling his seat belt and getting out of the truck. "Don't try ta tell me the bulls didn't show up," he said. "Someone musta called 'em. Ya were drivin' like a maniac, without a license... Please tell me ya didn't have any a' the boys with ya."
Race rubbed the back of his neck, mumbling under his breath. "Romeo and Crutchie..."
"Ya had Kelly's crip with ya?" Spot repeated, dumbfounded. "Kid, you'se lucky Jack didn't kill ya on the spot. And he still got ya outta trouble? He's a better brother than I am, that's for sure. Look Higgins, if some rich kid was out here doin' what you did, no one'd bat an eye. But for foster kids like us? You'd be rottin' in the Refuge by now if Kelly hadn't stepped in. Wonder what he told 'em..." He circled around Race's car, but Race ran after him.
"Wait! Spot, whaddaya mean?"
"Do I gotta spell it out for ya?" Spot asked, exasperated. "The bulls were gonna take ya away. And knowin' you, ya wouldn't be comin' back ta Jack any time soon. I don't know what he said or what he promised 'em, but they'se agreed ta let ya go. Jeez kid, I wasn't even there an' I know more than you!"
The Brooklyn boy shook his head, hooking Race's car up behind his truck, and Race tried to process what he had just been told. The Refuge... Jack saved me. He put himself on the line for me again, and I threw it back in his face. His eyes widened in horror as he played the day's events over in his mind, imagining it ending with the bulls hauling him away and Snyder's malicious laugh filling his ears, his entire body wracked with pain as he lay on the cold stone floor, completely at the mercy of Snyder and his guards. A sob caught in his throat, and the only thing that kept him from breaking down was remembering that Spot was right there. I ain't gonna cry in front of Spot Conlon. 'Sides, I don't cry anyways.
"C'mon, kid," Spot said, finished with his examination of Race's car. "Let's get back. I don't think Kelly'll want me ta have ya out for long. Didn't sound like he was done with ya yet."
Race must have formed some coherent answer. He must have followed Spot's directions and gotten into the truck. His panicked brain kept playing every possibility over and over again.
Chained up in the basement, starved, beaten, and kept there until he learned to keep his smart mouth under control.
Lying on the floor of the bunk room, in too much pain to move and with his wrists bound behind his back, unable to defend himself from the bigger boys who took their anger out on him.
Kneeling on the floor of Snyder's office, one of the man's hands gripping his blonde curls while the other held his chin, forcing him to meet his eyes.
Being sent to another foster home once he was released, away from Romeo and the boys, away from Jack...
"Higgins!" Spot said, jerking Race back to the present.
Race flinched. "What?"
Spot didn't take his eyes off the road. "You was spacin' out again. The past is past, Race. Today coulda ended bad, but it didn't. Don't beat yourself up ova' it."
Race shrugged, snatching up Spot's lighter and flicking it open. Spot reached out, stopping him before he could bring his cigar to the flame. "You'se already smoked one, kid," he said. "Take a break 'fore ya have a second."
Race looked up, startled. He hadn't recalled even lighting the first, let alone smoking the whole thing. With a shrug, he stuck the unlit cigar back in his mouth and clenched it tight between his teeth.
As he pulled into the lodging house driveway, Spot sent his friend a glance. The zoned-out look in his friend's eyes concerned him, though he wouldn't admit it to anyone. Something was going on in Race's head, something far bigger than the little fender-bender he'd been in that afternoon. Spot Conlon and Racetrack Higgins had been friends for years, ever since they'd been neighbors in Brooklyn when they were kids. Even back then he hung on ta Jack, Spot realized. Their little fight must be killin' him.
"I'll take your ride back ta Brooklyn," he spoke up. "We on for this weekend? We'se got a lotta work ta do ta get her street-ready again."
"Yeah," Race said. He tried to laugh, but it came out weak and shaky. "If Jack lets me outta the house, I'll be there."
Spot smirked. "Good luck, kid," he said, smacking the back of Race's head again. "I'se gotta head back ta Brooklyn. Fingers crossed they ain't burned the house down yet, or thrown Hot Shot in the river."
Race cracked a grin at that. "Tell 'em I says hi."
Spot sent his friend a wry smile. "Will do, kid. Now get outta my car."
Race nodded, avoiding Spot's gaze, before taking out his cigar and shoving his hands deep into his pockets and heading up the front walk, his chin tucked against his chest. "Jack?" he yelled, opening the door. There was no answer. "Jack!" he shouted.
"Geez, Racer, I'm here," Jack said, appearing in the doorway. "What's all the yellin' about?" He was answered when Race's small body catapulted into his, the younger boy's arms tightening around his waist in a bone-crushing hug. "Hey, it's okay," he said, slightly alarmed. "It's okay, Race. What's wrong?"
Race shook his head, burying his face in the fabric of his brother's shirt. "I don't wanna go ta the Refuge, Jack!" he sobbed, his voice muffled.
Jack's eyes widened. "Kid, who told ya that?" he demanded. Race only shook his head, but Jack realized his answer. "Conlon," he growled. "I swear, if he's still here..." He moved toward the door, but Race clung to him. "Racer..." Jack said, gently separating the younger boy from him. "Look at me." Gently, he tipped Race's chin up and looked into his teary blue eyes. "I ain't lettin' ya go ta that place, kid," he said. "Ya don't gotta worry 'bout that."
Race shook his head, refusing to meet Jack's gaze. "I'm such an idiot, Jack!" he said. "This whole time I thought ya were just bein' a jerk, but ya was tryin' ta keep me outta the Refuge!"
"Kid!" Jack said, catching Race by the shoulders. "Look at me, Race. If bein' a jerk is what it takes ta keep one a' my boys from bein' dragged off ta that livin' hell..." He shook his head. "I'm gonna kill Spot. The whole point was that ya weren't supposta find out. If he don't have the brains in his head ta figure that out..."
"No," Race said, wiping at his nose with his sleeve. "I'se glad he told me. Now I can apologize for bein' stupid all week. I drove because ya told me I couldn't, Jack."
"I know," Jack said, crossing over to the kitchen and digging through a drawer for a clean washcloth. "You'se an idiot sometimes, Race."
"And I took Crutchie with me so ya wouldn't get mad," Race continued, ignoring the idiot comment. "I thought that if I got caught I could say I was just givin' him a ride." Dang it, Higgins, quit while you'se ahead! Don't go confessin' everythin' ta him! He knew he had to, though. He wanted everything to be okay with him and Jack. Besides, it felt good to talk to his brother again.
Running the washcloth under cold water, Jack turned around to face him. "Ya really thought Crutchie bein' there'd help your case?" he said in disbelief. "What goes on in that head a' yours, kid?"
Race shrugged, kicking at the floor. "I don't know," he said. "Ya still mad?"
Jack considered this as he motioned Race over to him. "Nah, not mad," he said. "Still disappointed, though. Close your eyes."
Race's heart sank as he let his eyes fall closed. "Oh." He felt the coolness of the washcloth on his face as his brother wiped away the tear stains on his cheeks, and just like that the guilty feeling was back. "Jack, stop," he pleaded. "I hate it when you'se mad at me, but this is worse. You'se all disappointed at me, and you'se still helpin' me, and stoppin' 'em from takin' me ta that place-"
"Racer," Jack interrupted. "Ya lied ta me, broke my trust, and put our brothers in danger. Ya screwed up, kid."
Race's face grew hot at the blunt statement. Everything in him wanted to deny, to deflect the blame, but he knew Jack was right. And the older boy wasn't done yet.
"Race..." Jack hesitated. "Do ya really think anythin' ya do is gonna make a difference ta me? We'se brothers. Brothers look out for each other, no matter what."
He tossed the washcloth in the sink, leaning back on the counter with a sigh. "I'm tired, Race. Ya think I don't want ya ta be able ta drive? It would be so much easier if ya could. If it wasn't just me drivin' the boys around. But doin' stupid stuff is just gonna make it longa' 'fore ya can get your license. I know that when we'se was younga' we'se'd fight all the time, an' we really didn't mean it, but I just can't do it anymore. I'se got school, and work, and twenty-somethin' boys ta look out for, and half a dozen classes I'se afraid of failin'. I thought it'd be quicker ta skip the whole fight and just take the keys right from the start."
"But it wasn't," Race said in a low voice. "Jack, I'm sorry I started a big thing. I just... I wanna be like you, an' drive the boys cool places, an' have Romeo tell me how great of a big brother I am. Stuff that you gets ta do every day."
"Racer, you'se their big brother, too!" Jack said. "What's more, you'se the fun one. I'se gotta make all the rules, be on ev'ryone's case all the time. You just get ta be... Race. And they love ya for it."
Race shrugged, still not convinced. C'mon, Higgins. You'se known Jack since you was nine years old! He's one a' your oldest friends, for cryin' out loud! For as long as ya can remember, you'se trusted him. Wanted ta be just like him. But now all the boys wanna be like Jack.
"Hey," Jack said, recognizing the look in his brother's eyes. "Get outta your head, Race, and stay with me. Let's just stick with you bein' you an' me bein' me. 'Cause kid, it's you who Romeo looks up to. That kid looks at you like ya hung the moon, Racer. Ya should be proud a' that."
Race managed a grin at that. "Yeah," he said. "Kid sees somethin' in me, who knows what. Speakin' a' Romeo, I should prob'ly go check on him," he added, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. "I, uh, kinda scared him earlier."
Jack grinned, ruffling his brother's hair. "Yeah, prob'ly a good idea," he said. "He was upstairs with the boys last I saw 'im."
Race batted his brother's hand away playfully before heading for the stairs. Then, changing his mind, he ran back and threw his arms around Jack for a second time that day. "Love ya, Jack."
The leader grinned, holding on to Race tight. "Love ya too, kid." Then he frowned slightly, smelling Race's shirt. "Have ya been smokin'?"
Uh oh. Not good, not good. Quick, distract! "Gotta go, Jack!" Race shouted. "I'll check in on Crutchie too, while I'm up here." He made it halfway up the stairs before Jack had a chance to react.
"Hold it," Jack called. "Back it up an' bring it here, Racetrack." With a sigh, Race retraced his steps, ending up back in front of Jack. "Gimme the cigars," his older brother ordered, holding out his hand.
Race sighed again, handing them over. "It ain't fair, Jack," he said.
"It is too fair," Jack countered. "You'se comin' with me ta the diner tomorra afta' school, too."
"Noooo!" Race whined. "Just tomorra, right?"
A smirk played at the corner of Jack's mouth. "We'll see." Race groaned, heading back to the stairs. "Love ya, kid!" Jack called after him, grinning.
"Yeah, yeah, whateva'!" Race grumbled, turning his head so Jack couldn't see his smile. "Hey, Romeo!" he shouted, quickening his steps. At the top of the stairs he glanced around. "Romeo?" Shedding his jacket on the floor, he started searching bedrooms. Old Mr. Kloppman's house, which he had kindly turned into a group home, had half a dozen rooms upstairs, shared by the twenty or so boys who lived there.
After a couple minutes, Race found his baby brother in Albert's room, working on his math homework. "Hey, Race," Albert said, looking up.
Romeo looked up, too. "Hey, Race," he said, his voice lacking his usual enthusiasm. "Albert's helpin' me today."
"Replacin' me already?" Race teased, messing up Romeo' hair. "Whaddaya got?"
"Algebra," the younger boy said. "I can do it by myself, Race."
The Italian boy froze. That was a dismissal if he'd ever heard one. Frowning, he shot Albert a glare. The redhead responded with an "it-wasn't-me" gesture and shrugged. "Okay, kid," he said, lingering for a second. "Hey, when you'se done maybe we can do somethin' fun, okay?"
"Maybe," Romeo said off-handedly.
Race's smile disappeared altogether, and he headed for his own room. Throwing himself on his bed, he opened his eyes wide and stared at the ceiling until the threat of tears had gone away. Why me? Everythin' that happened today, why me?
After a while, he reached for the box of Coronas under his pillow. Screw this, Jack. I deserve one afta' today.
Race crumpled his paper in frustration, throwing down his pencil. Whatsamatta' with ya, Higgins? he thought bitterly. Can't ya do anythin' right? "I hate this!" he protested. "How much longa' 'til your shift ends, Jack?"
"'Bout an hour," Jack said, leaning his elbows on the counter. "C'mon, kid, it's just geometry. Can't be that bad."
Race shook his head, blinking back the tears that dared to form. "Ya know what I mean," he muttered.
The leader sighed. "That bad, huh?"
Race pushed back his chair, glaring at his math book. "That bad?" he scoffed. "Yeah, I'd say Romeo not wantin' anythin' ta do with me is pretty bad. I woke up last night ta check on him, and he wasn't even there! Every night for three years, every time he has a nightmare, I'se been there for him, Jack! Why would he go find someone else? He hates me now."
"Racer, the kid just needs some space," Jack explained. "He's stressed. Ya kinda freaked him out yesta'day."
"That wasn't my fault!" Race burst out. Jack raised an eyebrow. "Okay, maybe it was," the Italian amended. "But Romeo's neva' ignored me like this before! Last night was the first night in three years he didn't come lookin' for me afta' a nightmare. And don't tell me he didn't have one, 'cause he always does. I'm his brother, I know this stuff!"
"I know, kid," Jack said, dropping into the seat beside his him. "Bein' the big brother's hard sometimes, ain't it?"
Race bit his lip, feeling a wave of guilt sweep over him. He stole a glance at his big brother, taking in just how much older he looked. Fine lines were forming at the corners of his eyes, eyes that were weary from countless nights spent studying, waiting tables, talking one of the boys through a nightmare- whatever needed to be done, Jack did it. And now he looked weary and so much older than seventeen. "I love ya, Jack," Race said without thinking. "Thanks for... for everythin'."
Jack grinned, his eyes lighting up with the old familiar spark. "Love ya too, Racer," he said, pressing a kiss to the younger boy's forehead. "Romeo'll come around. Trust me on this one."
Race smiled slightly, watching Jack as he pushed himself up and headed over to check on one of his tables. Picking up his pencil, he turned reluctantly back to his homework. He didn't pay any attention when the bell over the door jingled, signaling a new customer, but there was no ignoring the small body that practically tackled him out of his chair.
"Race!" Romeo yelled, loud enough to draw the attention of everyone in the restaurant. He was practically bouncing up and down. "Guess what? Y'know the girl who sits next ta me in class? The real pretty redhead? She's inta me, I just know it. Today she-"
"Whoa, kid," Race said, gripping Romeo by the shoulders. "Calm down. Homework first, girls later. Ya got it?" In spite of his words, he couldn't stop the smile that spread across his face.
"Aw, Race!" Romeo complained. The gambler grinned, ruffling his dark hair. "Will ya help me with my spellin' words?" Romeo asked, ducking away.
"Sure, kid." Romeo climbed up on the seat next to him, spreading his work out between them. "First word's spectacular," Race read. "Racetrack Higgins is spectacular."
Romeo's brow furrowed in concentration. "S-P-E-C..." He hesitated, shooting his brother a questioning glance.
"You'se spellin' Specs's name now," Race said with a grin. "C'mon, sound it out. Spec-tac-u-lar," he said slowly.
"S-P-E-C-T-A-C-U-L-A-R," Romeo recited, following Race's lead.
"Yeah, you got it!" Race said proudly, raising his hand for a high five. Romeo opted for a hug instead, throwing his arms around Race and nearly knocking him over.
Jack gave him a thumbs up on his way back to the kitchen. "Told ya," he mouthed.
Race grinned back, wrapping his arms around his little brother. Yeah. Everythin's gonna be okay.
(A/N): Hey, everyone! I'm alive, I swear. And I've been working on this story for FIVE MONTHS! You have no idea how excited I am to finally share it with you all! There are two chapters total, and I'll post the second one (Jack's POV) as soon as I get five reviews. So please follow and review! It'll make me happy, I like attention.
A HUGE thank you to SomedayonBroadway! This story wouldn't exist without her. Not only did she convince me to turn it from a random idea into a reality, but she also gave amazing feedback every step of the way. She's fantastic, you should definitely go read her stories!
Love you all!