Sophie sat cross-legged on the floor in her lacy whites, looking like a scene out of a Marie-Louise-Catherine Breslau canvas. Flickers of candlelight cast shadow patterns against her face and the room around her. The walls had a decorative dado that had chipped away over the years, with a once suitably elegant silver-grey wallpaper and elaborately patterned frieze, now peeling. The wind rustled through the ubiquitous ruched silk curtains, a pretty shade of sea-blue, now faded. It was as though everything around her was haunted.

Besides two or three pieces of good furniture, there were a pair of matching gilt-framed mirrors and a fine painting stacked against the wall. A few tarnished tea bowls sat atop a table, giving the effect of an otherwise charmingly harmonious afternoon engagement left abandoned. Even the stiff crimson upholstered chairs were full of little moth holes, yet the moths themselves had vanished.

Two floors below her was the stage. She could hear the bawdy vibrato of Medda's showgirls, belting out vaudeville tunes for an adoring crowd, traveling up through the cracks in the floorboards.

Medda's Theater was a decent place to seek lodging, not to mention a hidden one. Three of Sophie's friends were among Medda's favorite girls, and for that they shared a small room upstairs. Medda had been trying to recruit Sophie for a year, offering her steady pay and a roof over her head, but Sophie stubbornly refused each time, holding out her last shred of hope for something better.

She lay on Leah's bed, watching her get dressed. Leah stood in front of her cracked mirror in nothing but her undergarments, inspecting her body.

"Is my nose too big?" Leah asked, pressed up close to the mirror, fingers dabbing at her aquiline nose, turning her face to the side.

"No," Sophie replied flatly, realizing this conversation was going to turn into another reaffirmation to Leah that she was indeed the most beautiful girl in New York.

Leah leaned back, tilting her head upward and gazing at her reflection. "What about my neck? Does it look chicken-like?"

"No," Sophie sighed, burying her face into Leah's pillow. "You're beautiful, Leah."

Leah bit her lip, not convinced. "Okay, but if you were a customer and you saw me for the first time, would you think I'm going out of my way to look beautiful or just passable enough to be beautiful?"

Their other friend, Bella, sat at the vanity table doing her makeup. "Leah, we're not doing this again tonight. You're beautiful. Shut up."

Smiling a little, Sophie got up and started to fix her hair and makeup over Bella's shoulder.

Leah shimmied into a corset, and then took it off after a beat. "It's not fair. I don't look good in anything. I have nothing to show."

Sophie glared at Leah's nymph-like figure out of the corner of her eye. "Leah, you might actually be insane. Stop letting Jack Kelly of all people make you feel like you're any less gorgeous than you are. He's an ego-maniac."

"He's not an ego-maniac," Leah argued, placing her hands on her hips. "He's just an idiot."

"I rest my case," Sophie sighed.

Bella ran her finger along her lip line to remove excess color. "Which is why you need to show Jack that he didn't mean anything to you, and he just lost the queen of New York," she said.

"Queen of Manhattan, maybe," Leah corrected with dejection.

Sophie and Bella laughed, taking turns in front of the mirror.

"I don't know, maybe I'm just delusional," Sophie said quietly. "But romance is dead."

The girls were quiet for a moment.

"You've just had bad luck," Bella replied.

"Don't confuse luck with god-awful fate," Sophie mumbled.

Leah threw her hairbrush onto the bed, watching it bounce to the floor. "Jack completely destroyed any shred of hope for romance I had left," she whined, flinging herself onto her bed. "Just watching him walk around the city with that...that woman! Who does she think she is? Just comes out of nowhere and suddenly she's all he can drool over?"

Leah was referring to Sarah Jacobs, the pretty sister of his newest confidante.

"Jack was going around with at least five other girls before you," Bella reminded Leah.

"Any guy would be lucky to be with you," Sophie added. "You'll probably find someone tonight."

Leah arched her eyebrow at the girl. "I don't need to hear this from someone who doesn't believe in love."

Sophie chuckled a little under her breath. "Is that a bet? I could make a man propose to me in a matter of minutes. Just give me two shots of whiskey. I'll be someone's forever-in-holy-matrimony wife by the end of the night."

Leah laughed along, her former display of insecurities vanishing for the moment.

Bella turned to Sophie sharply, giving her a 'come now' look. "Doesn't mean you'd actually accept such a proposal."

Leah noticed the way Sophie wilted at that. "Don't be cynical," she said to Bella, who shrugged.

A knock came at the door, and Toby — Medda's mustached stagehand — poked his head in.

"Girls, I've got a curtain going up in two minutes with no one onstage. What's the deal—"

"We ain't working tonight," Bella replied nonchalantly.

Leah threw her slipper at the doorframe, covering herself with her arms. "If you do this one more time, Toby, I'll tell Medda about last night! Now get out!" She screamed as Toby quickly closed the door.

"Last night?" Sophie looked over at Leah. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

Leah and Bella exchanged a disgusted look. "No, but Toby does."

Colleen climbed in off the fire escape, putting out her cigarette on the railing and flicking it over the side, just as Medda came through the door. The woman appeared to be half-drunk, and fueled by bored spite, her eyes going directly to Sophie.

"Sophie," Medda smiled, pulling her kimono tightly around herself. "Where've you been, sweetie?"

"Around," Sophie said, offering a light smile.

"I heard about the little newsboy strike," she said, borrowing Bella's lip stick and reapplying it in the mirror. "How long has it been...uh...going for? A month?"

"Two weeks."

"Uh-huh," Medda swayed, dabbing rouge onto her hollowed cheeks, singing along faintly to the song downstairs in stilted Swedish.

"Hiya, Soph," Colleen smiled, her wide eyes hazy as she gave Sophie a little hair ruffle.

"Haven't seen you in a little bit," Sophie said, returning a warm grin to the blonde.

Colleen shrugged, revealing nothing.

Medda adjusted her curls, placing a hair pin between her lips. "Oh, Colleen's just flippant. She's got herself a new beau."

Colleen rolled her eyes. "Medda, don't be ridiculous. He's nothing more than a friend."

Medda laughed a bit dizzily, raising her hands in a dramatic surrender. "As you like, dear. Then who was that charming you man who came to see you this morning, kid?"

"I'm not arguing with you about this, Medda," Colleen said in a song-song voice, spritzing herself with perfume to hide the scent of smoke.

Medda winked at Sophie. "How's your brother?"

Sophie smiled a bit uncomfortably. "Oh, Skittery's fine. He's good."

Colleen gave Sophie a knowing look.

"Thanks for asking," Sophie replied to the floor, bringing her knees up to her chest.

After Medda had walked out, Colleen sat beside Sophie.

"With the strike...I mean, how bad are things?" Colleen asked.

"Pretty bad," Sophie whispered.

The other two girls joined her on the floor in nervous silence.

Leah traced her fingers along the lacing of Sophie's chemise. "Is this the one I lent you?" She asked accusingly. Sophie turned and followed her gaze to the hole in the seam. "Don't try to mend it yourself. You'll just make it worse. I'll do it."

Sophie bit her lip, looking as though she were counting in her head. "You should never have let me borrow it in the first place. Everything I touch falls apart somehow."

Leah sighed. "But you needed a new one anyway. The one you had before wasn't very grown up. And now see how pretty you look—"

"I don't want to look pretty," Sophie hissed, snapping her blue eyes up to meet Leah's green ones. "I didn't ask to be pretty. I hate being pretty."

"What a little goose you are, to think your brain will fill your stomach," Leah replied with an astonished wide-eyed expression, as if she'd been slapped across the face.

Sophie said nothing, continuing to stare at her friend until Leah shrugged and went out onto the fire escape for a smoke. Colleen shook her head before following Leah out.

Bella squeezed Sophie's hand lovingly. "Come out with us tonight, Soph," she said, tucking a strand of Sophie's hair behind her ear. "Tibby's hasn't been the same without you. And ever since the strike started, it's not like there's been much familiar company."

Sophie heaved a weary sigh, looking down at her friend's hand in hers. "What do I have to celebrate?"

"That you're in good health. That you have friends who love you, and who are willing to pay for your drinks," she gave a wink. "We know you ain't working much anymore."

Sophie breathed out angrily, burying her face into her hands. She groaned, squeezing her eyes shut. Bella looked down at her, concerned, gripping her wrist.

"What is it?"

Sophie looked up at her. "I made a really stupid decision, Bella, and now I think it's too late to fix it."

Her eyebrows knitting together, Bella released Sophie's wrist. "What? Are you pregnant?"

"No," Sophie managed an exasperated laugh. "God no. I just...I have a stupid understanding with Atlas Giannotti. All to get him to join the strike. But that I'm thinking about it, I probably shouldn't have done it with the way things are going. I mean, it's been two weeks now, and nothing's changed. The price hasn't lowered."

Now it was Bella's turn for a dramatic sigh. "Of all people..." She trailed off with a smile, hoping to see the same resolve on Sophie's face but finding only a regretful frown. "What does he get from this understanding?"

Sophie shrugged, not wanting to look her oldest friend in the eye.

Bella gave her a playful push against the arm. "He's getting your attention for free. That's not like you," she said with a soft laugh. "Does your brother know?"

Sophie shook her head. "I don't know what he knows anymore. And I don't care. It's not his decision," she said quietly. "I guess I only wanted to help, but it's exhausting."

Bella nodded, staring at the floor. "Is that why you haven't been sleeping here?"

Standing up, Sophie flipped her long hair over her head, raking her fingers through the tangles and then flipping it back. She began to plat it down her back, pacing the room.

"And is that where your boots are?" Bella guessed, looking down at her bare feet.

"His Superintendent almost caught us," Sophie mumbled, throwing on her calico dress that had been draped against the chair. "Had to hop out of the place without them, okay?"

"We all wear about the same size. Maybe Colleen or Leah has an extra pair," Bella said, shaking her head in disbelief.

She turned to look up at Sophie, eyeing Leah and Colleen smoking and talking on the fire escape. "Cohen was easier to convince, believe it or not," Sophie replied with a small smile. "Queens backed us up almost immediately."

Bella's smile faded into a look of surprise. "Sophie you didn't," she said, almost in awe. "Are we talking about the same Crazy Cohen? The one who used to hang you headfirst off the bridge?"

"We were kids. He's different now."

"Sophie, the word crazy is in his name."

"Whatever, it's done," Sophie held up her hands. "Just let me wallow in my so-called charitable deeds," she groaned, sinking into one of the stiff chairs.

The window slid open, and Leah poked her head in. "Well, are you two coming or not? If I'm not absolutely smashed by midnight, I might never forgive either of you."

Bella looked from Leah to Sophie, offering steady smirk. She stood, pulling on Sophie's arm. "Come on. A little liquid courage before you have to see him won't kill ya."

Sophie rolled her eyes before allowing herself to be pulled up by Bella and whisked out the fire escape window into the cool July air. Colleen looked Sophie up and down. "Where are your shoes?"

Sophie grit her teeth, heading down the fire escape. "Staten Island. Up Atlas Giannotti's ass."

The three exchanged a look and then followed down after her.

Tibby's was suffocated by a rowdy and raucous gathering that night, all drinking and dancing. Sophie and her entourage walked through the crowd, taking it in, looking out for familiar faces. She could hear rumblings of a fight as she pushed through the mad chaos of the usual Friday night party. She found Muggs Tracey, one of Spot Conlon's boys, shirtless, wasted, and apparently aggravated.

He was yelling at some businessman in a suit, backing him against a wall and demanding to fight. The man tried to walk away, but Muggs grabbed him and threw him back toward the wall.

The crowd around them erupted in pandemonium, trying to get an unobstructed view of the action, and started to make bets on the outcome. The odds did not favor the businessman.

None of the Manhattan boys were in sight, a painful reminder of their situation. Her eyes landed on a few more of Spot Conlon's cronies, as well as none other than some of Skittery's old associates.

Sophie knew them as such. Skittery didn't hang around with them often, but their shared time in the Refuge had kept the bond strong. Among them that night was Cards Mahoney, Lion Valentini, Shakespeare Lindy, and Charles Lafayette – all four of them at the bar, nursing their second and third drinks. Midtown newsies strike unaffiliated.

Sophie watched them for a moment. They seemed to know everyone, talking with random patrons, taking drags from their cigarettes, Lion speaking in rapid Italian with the bartender.

Sophie steered her friends toward their setup at the bar. Shakespeare, whose brains could give David Jacobs' a run for his money, was reading the paper in the dim light of the place. Lafayette was busy sketching something again on one of the pages Shakespeare wasn't using, ignoring his pint as usual.

"Are all the French lightweights?" Shakespeare asked, eyeing his friend's full glass.

"Are all Americans pricks?" Lafayette retorted in his thick accent with a half-smirk, not looking up from his drawing.

"Yes," Shakespeare replied deadpan, as the rest of the table laughed.

Cards looked extremely preoccupied across the table. His foot pumped involuntarily as he glanced out the foggy window.

Sophie walked over to the table with her friends, sporting an almost apologetic smile on her face.

"Cards Mahoney," she said to Cards.

"Skittery's baby sister," Cards guessed, though he indeed knew who she was, and then turned to her friends with a similar welcoming smile. "How the hell are ya."

"Hi fellas," Leah said to the table, batting her eyelashes ridiculously. She hadn't been in the place five minutes and had somehow managed to take four shots behind Sophie's back.

"Hey," the boys echoed in unison.

"How's it going?" Sophie asked.

Lion shrugged, taking a drag from his cigarette. "Same as it always goes. Why, you know different?"

"Thought I'd ask," Sophie replied with a weak smile.

A brief, awkward pause followed.

"So, Manhattan newsies are on strike..." Shakespeare said.

"Yeah," Sophie laughed forcibly. She didn't know why. It was an automatic reaction.

"You poor things," Shakespeare tilted his head, looking up from his sketch at all four girls. "You must be starving. Skittery ought to be taking diligent care of you."

Bella rolled her eyes as Sophie nodded. "Think maybe you could tell him that for me?"

"Or you boys could join the strike, help us end it sooner," Bella said, squaring her shoulders.

"If it's not completely destroying your livelihood," Sophie added.

"Nope, not at all," Lion assured her sarcastically. "We got more dough than J.P. Morgan."

"Shut up," Cards chuckled, shaking his head, and offered Sophie his cigarette.

Sophie took a drag from it bashfully.

"Hey, Cards, look," Lion said abruptly as he pointed across the bar. "Ain't that Racetrack Higgins? Don't he owe you money?"

"That son of a bitch," Cards muttered, eyeing the Manhattan newsie at another table with some girl on his lap. He turned to Sophie. "Be right back, baby sis." Cards patted her shoulder and left the bar with Lion.

Sophie offered a weak smile, hating the nickname. Surely, they didn't all see her as just Skittery's little sister. Atlas and Crazy Cohen certainly didn't.

"Drinks?" Shakespeare asked the girls, counting as they raised their hands. "On me," he said, getting out of his seat to track down the bartender who'd disappeared.

Lafayette warmly gestured for the girls to join him at the empty seats. They obliged with small smiles.

"Hey Lafayette," Sophie greeted him.

"Hi Sophie," the Frenchman said politely.

She noticed that he had been composing a drawing on the page. It was a picture of the restaurant.

"Oh, that's a nice drawing," Colleen said in awe.

"Oh, thanks, yeah, I'm trying to be a naturalist," Lafayette took a puff from his cigarette, blowing smoke from the side of his lips. He folded the page, giving the girls his full attention.

"How've you been?" Sophie asked him.

"Pretty good," he replied. "Better than last year anyway. You?"

"I'm fine," Sophie said in a sad attempt to sound chipper. "But you and the others have had it a lot worse. I'm not one to complain."

Bella eyed Lafayette's full pint, and he winked at her, nudging it her way. She accepted it happily, taking a sip.

"Has he told you much?" Lafayette asked Sophie.

"No," she shook her head, making an embarrassed 'bleh' face. "Skittery doesn't ever talk about the Refuge."

Lafayette nodded quietly just as Shakespeare returned with a tray of drinks. "The Refuge?" He asked, catching part of the conversation. "Who the hell brought that up? We don't speak of it. Ever," he said with a teasing smile, though the haunted look in his eyes betrayed him.

"Give me a drink, and I'll speak of whatever you want," Leah said with a know-it-all smile, to which Shakespeare handed her a glass and clinked it with his.

"How's Camille?" Sophie asked Lafayette, ignoring the game Shakespeare was knowingly, nay happily, playing with Leah. "How old is your daughter now?"

"They're both good," Lafayette said with a genuine smile. "And Amelie's three now."

"Yeah, and she speaks better English than him," Shakespeare added over his shoulder.

Lafayette shook his head. "You're not still selling newspapers, I take it?"

"I'm between jobs," Sophie mumbled. "I'm sort of desperate for money at the moment." She laughed, a bit unnaturally. Another awkward moment passed between them.

"So, I heard Queens and Staten Island newsies are on strike," Lafayette continued. "I haven't seen Giannotti or Cohen in a while. They must be closer with Jack Kelly than I thought."

"Yeah, incredible solidarity," Sophie said with a touch of hopelessness.

Lafayette looked mock-scandalized. "Don't give me that look. I can't afford to strike. I have a baby to feed."

Bella and Sophie took a sip from their drinks at the same time. "And what's their excuse?" Bella asked, nodding to the other three boys.

"I can't speak for them," Lafayette shrugged. "But you know those three. They'd either be too drunk or too hungover to get much picketing done."

Bella sighed, raking a tired hand through her dark hair. "There just ain't enough."

Cards and Lion rejoined the group at the bar, Cards counting a few dollars in his hands.

At that moment, the fiddlers in the corner began up again with their music, livening up the restaurant with people dancing around the bar.

"Finally, let's go!" Leah said, pulling Shakespeare out onto the dancefloor and dizzily spinning around.

Bella leaned close to Sophie. "What time is he expecting you tonight?" She whispered. "Atlas."

"He's lucky if I even show up," she said with a shrug, knowing damn well she had to meet Atlas at midnight.

The thought of the long night ahead of her made Sophie want to throw herself to the ground and scream. Instead, she took another shot of whiskey, swooping her head down to the wooden counter as the alcohol rushed down her throat. She leaned back and shook her head when something – or rather someone – caught her eye.

"I'll be right back," she mumbled to Bella, brushing past her friend and the crowd of drinking patrons. She followed as the person disappeared down the center of the dance floor, trying to find her balance and footing as the shots took effect. Leaning against a table, refusing to crawl, she kept her wobbly balance before she began walking, bracing herself should she fall.

Suddenly, she weaved, losing her footing, and stepping over broken glass toward the opposite end of the restaurant. As she neared the back, she eyed Muggs, freshly bruised up, pounding back an enormous amount of liquor with the rest of Spot Conlon's boys. Though Spot himself was nowhere in sight.

Sophie followed the person into a room in the back of the place, hidden and somehow more clouded with smoke. "You're following me?" The young man asked, turning around and flashing Sophie a faraway grin. "I take it Skittery doesn't know you're here."

He ran a hand through his greasy golden hair and fell backward onto a grimy sofa next to a few others. A long red pipe was passed to him, and he inhaled while keeping eye contact with Sophie, apparently awaiting an answer.

"Hey, Alex," she said, giving an easy nod to yet another one of Skittery's fellow inmates. The Russian, Alex, moved over to make room for Sophie to sit beside him, passing her the long pipe. She took it steadily, taking a short inhale, barely paying attention to the room spinning around her. She pulled back with a series of coughs, smoke pouring out of her mouth and nose. "Skittery doesn't need to know. I can take care of myself."

"Heard about the strike," he said in his raspy accent. "How are you feeding yourself?"

Sophie shrugged. "Medda's made some compelling job offers."

Alex took another hit of opium, staring off in deep contemplation. "Listen, Sophie," he began, his eyelids heavy as always. In fact, Sophie was entirely certain she'd never seen him sober before. "You do what you want, but don't settle for something because you feel it's your only choice," he said, one suspender falling off his shoulder.

Sophie looked at him, the rims of his blue eyes reddened and his breathing uneven. "Sure," she said, tucking her legs underneath her.

"I know, I know, I'm the last person to tell you this," Alex said, his voice light but his eyes grave. "I've seen a lot of girls like you on Randall's Island. Nice girls who weren't given a fair shot. I don't want to see you there, too."

"You're talking as if you'll be back there sometime soon."

Alex shifted to face her, something in his expression making Sophie's blood run cold. "I will, Sophie. I'll be there until I get sent to Sing-Sing. That's just the truth of it. But, kid, you've got people who love you. Don't let this be it," he said, gesturing to the room around him.

Sophie winced, trying to avert her eyes.

"You were all Skittery would talk about in the Refuge," he continued with a distant stare, passing his pipe to someone else. "He swore once he got out, he'd make sure you'd never end up there yourself. Even when he thought he'd die, he kept breathing so he wouldn't leave you all alone."

Collecting her thoughts, Sophie nodded, feeling hot tears sting her eyes. She looked over at Alex, his drugged-out gaze meeting her watery one. "Well, I don't plan on ending up there anytime soon," she said finally, a weak smile forming on her lips. "But if I do, you'll come to bust me out, won't you?"

Alex stared at her hazily, chuckling softly. "I'm already on my way, kid."

When Sophie left the back room, her face felt numb, her skin sweaty, her braid coming undone. She looked at the bar, finding the group she'd left in the same spot, but considerably more intoxicated.

Out of nowhere, Bella came running toward her. "Where did you go? You just missed it! The owner just kicked out Muggs Tracey for breaking the nose of one of the bouncers."

Sophie shrugged as Bella wrapped her arms around her friend in a hug. "You can't just disappear like that, okay? I almost organized a search party."

At the bar, Cards and Lion did a shot of whiskey, while Leah sat in Shakespeare's lap, basically pouring a pint down his throat. Colleen asked Bella to help her outside. "I don't feel so well," Colleen was moaning, her stomach turning. She hunched over.

"I told you not to smoke so much before you drink, you'll make yourself sick," Sophie sighed.

"Okay, don't be sick here," Bella said, helping her to her feet and exchanging a look with Sophie. "Come on, keep it in until we get outside."

"Shit, what time is it?" Sophie asked Cards.

Cards shrugged. "Almost eleven," he said, checking his pocket-watch.

Sophie sighed and took a shot, grimacing as the liquid burned her throat. "Thanks for the drinks. I have to go."

"Want me to call you a cab?" Cards asked, having to yell above the music and singing.

"No, I'll walk," Sophie said. "Will you make sure they're okay?" She asked, referring to the girls.

Cards nodded but didn't look especially convinced. "Can't I walk you? Skittery would kill me if anything happened."

"Skittery will never know I was here," Sophie said assuredly.

"But it's late," Cards said, seeming to sober up in a matter of seconds. "I'd feel much better if you stayed at our place or if I brought you to Duane Street."

"It's not like I could stay at either of those places," Sophie said with a regretful smile and shrug. "I'll be fine, really. I'll see you later," she said, giving him a quick hug.

"Sophie! You're leaving?" Lion said, irreversibly drunk, enveloping her in a tight squeeze. "Tell your brother to come drink with us next time."

"Yeah, sure," Sophie tried to laugh. "I'll tell him."

Cards gave her a knowing look. "Hey," he pulled her aside before she could leave, his mouth next to her ear. "If you need anything, you just tell us. We'll take care of it."

Sophie nodded with a soft smile, not entirely knowing what to say. With that, she ducked out of the restaurant and began the long journey to the Staten Island Newsboy Lodging House — the one Atlas was likely to be at. She drunkenly weaved down the streets, keeping out of sight for the most part.

The alleyway beside the lodging house was dark and empty, save for a few rats scurrying along. Sophie wrapped her arms around herself, minding where she stepped as she tiptoed along cautiously.

"You're late," a voice came from behind her.

She turned with a start, her heart about to beat out of her chest. "I lost track of time," Sophie said with a stern glare, but then forced a tipsy smile. "Guess I'll just have to make up for it."

Atlas smirked, stepping into the alley, closing in the world around her. "I was almost worried about ya." He brushed her wild strands of hair out of her face, his eyes narrowing a bit. "You smell hammered," he teased, towering above her, tilting her head toward him and inhaling. "Sophie," he admonished, looking her in the eye. "Have you been…smoking?" He asked, pretending to be horrified.

Sophie glanced around. "Is that what you want to do? Lecture me?"

Atlas snickered, running a gentle thumb under her eye, brushing away a stray tear she didn't even know she'd let fall.

"In here? Again?" Sophie rubbed the back of her neck, observing the dark and frankly terrifying alley. "Can't we go somewhere more comfortable?" She furrowed her brow and pursed her lips together, already regretting asking.

"Oh right, I forgot," Atlas sighed, shaking his head in mock disappointment. "I booked us a room at the Hotel Delmonico."

Sophie rolled her eyes, not blind to the hollow panic that rose in her chest. "Funny..."

"Missing something?" he said, gesturing to her bare feet.

Sophie glanced from him to the bunk room window and then back to him. "I think they're under your bed."

He pulled the pair of them out from behind his back, offering them to her.

Sophie took them slowly, then knelt and began to lace them up. She looked up at him expectantly. "What do you want me to do this time?"

Atlas laughed a little, sliding down against the brick wall to sit beside her. "Is that all you think of me?"

"You agreed to this in the first place," Sophie replied.

"You offered," Atlas said, his legs outstretched. "And I wasn't about to join Manhattan's cause so I could starve for nothing."

Sophie cursed under her breath, pulling at the boot laces tightly. She looked over at him, meeting his gaze with a blank stare of her own.

Wanting to get it over with, Sophie began nuzzling his neck, kissing his collarbone, and leaving a rather rough trail.

He groaned with a light chuckle, before lightly pushing her back. "Sophie," he said as he tried to continue. "Hey, stop, it's okay."

Sophie pulled back, confused and very tipsy from the alcohol consumption. "You don't want..."

Atlas shook his head. "I'm sorta tired, kid," he said, brushing her hair back.

Sophie grit her teeth. "What? But I came all the way over here." She felt hot tears begin to well behind her eyes. "Atlas I came all the way over here for you!"

Atlas looked down at his hands, scraping at dead skin. "Let's just sleep. It's late."

"Atlas, I'm not allowed in your lodging house! And I don't have the strength to go all the way back to Manhattan," Sophie said, her voice shaking. She raked her fingers through her hair angrily, wanting nothing more than to curl up in a warm bed.

"Sophie," Atlas said, embracing her in an uncharacteristic hug, resting his chin atop her head. "You don't have to go nowhere. I'm sleeping out here with you, okay?"

"Oh, so we just sleep outside?" Sophie grumbled. "Hospitable."

"Do you have a better suggestion?"

Exhausted and a bit dizzy from the whiskey shots, Sophie snuggled closer to Atlas, leaning against his chest, eyelids heavy. The alcohol had started to hit in the worst way, making her mind swim and her tongue say things without permission.

"You don't have to be nice to me, Atlas," Sophie said, too tired to get up and leave.

Atlas looked down at her, like he wanted to say something, but stopped himself.

"What?" Sophie asked, her annoyance clear.

"Nothing."

"Quit staring at me like I'm some bird with a broken wing."

Atlas hummed in an attempt at a laugh and looked away. "I wasn't."

Sophie allowed herself a small smile which she concealed in the shadows.

"Do you hate me?" Atlas asked quietly, his voice keeping its teasing air.

"No," Sophie replied. "But I think you lack substance."

Atlas huffed again, not entirely sure whether to be wounded or amused. "Oh. Damn."

"I don't like the dark," Sophie said out of nowhere in a small voice, huddling in close to Atlas' body.

"Hmm," Atlas mused, stroking her hair. "Me neither."

It was an odd feeling, Sophie thought, being coddled by Atlas Giannotti. She played with his long fingers, suddenly feeling an overwhelming sense of emptiness.

"I miss my brother," she whispered, her shoulders beginning to shake.

Atlas looked down at her in his arms. "He's probably sleeping."

"No, he doesn't sleep," Sophie mumbles drowsily. "He's probably awake." She felt his chest rise and fall with each breath, feeling somewhat comforted, as well as somewhat of a sexual tension that she didn't want to acknowledge.

Atlas leaned down and kissed her cheek. "Nah, he's definitely asleep. Like you should be."

Sophie crumbled against him, laying her head against his chest once more, a few stray tears trickling down her numb eyes. "Maybe you could tell me a story?" She asked, her eyes closed, feeling his hand enclose with hers.

"Mm, a story?" He asked, sounding like he might drift off to sleep at any moment himself. "What kind of story?"

Sophie shrugged weakly. "Something about you. Something happy."

Atlas was quiet for a moment, seemingly in thought. "I don't have any of those…" he trailed off with a low chuckle, and then cleared his throat. "Would you settle for a back scratch instead?"

As he began to softly drag his nails up and down her back soothingly, Sophie allowed sleep to finally take her over. Even under the influence, she realized Atlas was trying to divert any efforts to get a sense of humility out of him. But she didn't mind. The fact that he was being this empathetic was mystifying enough for one evening.