Spot was giving him the what the hell? look again.
"I knows that look," Race said.
"You do, do you?"
"Hey, don't get me wrong, 's a good one. Says a lot, that look. Only," he lied through his teeth, "it don't work on me."
Spot merely stayed silent.
Race cleared his throat. "All right, maybe it works a little bit," he mumbled.
"Just what is it you'se getting at, Race?"
"The...thing. That I was reminding Snitch about. You know."
"No. I don't know. That's why I'se asking you."
"But that's exactly what I mean." Race waved his hands in frustration, unable to find precisely the right words. "You don't gotta ask me, and I don't gotta tell you. Not this time."
Spot's expression closed off abruptly, the flicker of regret that followed disappearing so fast Race wasn't entirely sure he'd seen it. "That's true. I don't got a right to ask, not when I'se saying nothing in ret—"
"No, no, it ain't that. Ain't that at all. I don't mind you knowing. It's just that..."
"Just that what?"
"Just that I ain't telling you."
"Higgins, if this is your idea of some kinda game, I'm not in the—"
"No game. I'se being completely serious." He sat up higher on his knees and leaned forward, putting himself within arm's reach. "You knows right where I am, don't you." It was a statement, not a question.
"And if I do, then what?"
"Then you can reach out an' find your answer here. Go ahead." When Spot still didn't respond, Race added, "Come on. I don't mind. If you like, you can think of it like punching me in the face, just a little less hard. All right, actually a lot less hard—"
It took everything he had not to jerk back as Spot's palm shot straight out at his face, but his immediate instincts about the other boy had been correct: the move had not been an aggressive one. On the contrary, it had been nearly convulsive, almost as if Spot had not quite trusted himself to make it, almost as if Spot had believed Race might suddenly have second thoughts and rescind the offer.
Spot's palm had halted maybe less than an inch from his nose. It took up a good part of Race's field of vision. He exhaled deliberately, letting the small rush of air—a little ragged, he had to admit, but see if anybody could stay calm when the King of Brooklyn swung at you—confirm his presence. "There. I told ya you knew where I was."
Spot was no more composed than he was, muscles rigid, vibrating with tension. "You'se a lunatic," he breathed.
Race shrugged, mindful of maintaining his position. "Eh, I been called worse."
"And deserved it every time, I'se sure."
"Beggin' your pardon, Yer Honor, but you got no proof. I ain't made of glass, by the way."
"I know." But Spot's hand, when it shifted to his left cheek, touched him as though he were made of nothing but glass, all the same. Race was reminded of the elegant way he'd always seen Spot handle tumblers and cups, regardless of their commonplace materials, holding them like something expensive, something fine.
There was a subtle tremor running through those fingers. It didn't surprise Race in the least. Spot, as he'd seen, stayed close to his boys, did not hesitate to lean on them when he required brief guidance to get around or physical support from the effects of his injury. Or when he needed to issue a discreet, swift order without resorting to words. But that was all.
Keeping otherwise still, Race found his gaze swiveling for a second to where Jack sat some ways down the tunnel, groggily awake now, gently tugging the pale cotton strip wrapped around one of David's wrists back into place.
The touch on his cheekbone was feather-light, and stayed that way for some time. As Spot spread his fingers wider, the tension in them finally beginning to ease, Race could feel their callouses against his skin. Many of them were from the walking-stick, no doubt, being wielded far too often these days, whether as a weapon or as an assistance to navigating. Mentally, he cataloged them, as many as he was able to distinguish anyway: a couple on each finger, corresponding ones on the palm.
Spot's thumb drifted across his nose to his opposite cheek, the pad of it coming to rest against the bottom edge of his eye socket without pressing in the slightest. Thumbs and eye sockets were not a good combination, not if you wanted to stay healthy, but Race had rarely felt less threatened than he did right now. After a moment Spot continued upward, carefully bypassing his eye to trace the shape of his eyebrows. Race waggled them a bit, just for effect.
"Idiot," Spot muttered.
He coughed pointedly, affronted. "That's Mister Idiot, if you don't mind."
Spot didn't deign to answer. His hand completed its circuit back to Race's left cheek, where it paused before beginning again, this time a slow downward slide. As Spot's fingers found the corner of his mouth, Race gave him a grin, broad and unmistakable, letting the expression be clearly felt. He was rewarded with abrupt stillness and the sight of Spot's throat working soundlessly in a hard swallow.
Christ, when was the last time Spot had seen a friendly smile? Whatever it had been, whether weeks or even months, it was evident that it had been much too long.
"Now I know it's you," Spot murmured absently, and Race had the distinct impression the words hadn't been directed at him at all.
He wasn't prepared for the sudden ache that stabbed through the center of his chest. Somehow, it hadn't occurred to him until now how it must have been for the other boy, how Spot's new world of darkness must have thrown him simultaneously into a new world of comparative strangers as well. Or at least into a world of people he'd had to learn to know all over again, in completely different ways.
Spot froze anew at the single drop of warm liquid trickling over his fingers. "Are you bleeding?"
Race blinked rapidly. "No. And shut up."
There'd never been a time in the past when he could have said that to Spot Conlon and gotten away with it. But today Spot didn't say anything, only swallowed again, gave a single brief nod to himself and slid his hand lower, to Race's chin.
"Everything all right here, boss?"
Race, admirably, did not jump out of his skin as Garrs' voice boomed suddenly above them. He'd been so focused on Spot that he'd failed to notice the approach of the Brooklyn boys, and now with a sensation akin to resurfacing after a deep dive he could belatedly see them in his watery peripheral vision. They loomed over him from behind and to either side, their hulking shadows all but blotting out the dim illumination of the tunnel's sparse lamps. He could feel his face flushing at the intrusion, indignation and embarrassment mingled, and made to pull away.
It was the slight motion of Spot's fingertips that stopped him. The gesture was wordless, but it lacked the sharp squeeze of an issued order. It was nothing more than the barest hint of pressure, and Race decided he might as well stay.
Spot kept his hand where it was, fingers loosely cradling the underside of Race's jaw; Spot's head turning slowly in the speaker's direction was his only movement, grey eyes like an imminent ocean storm. Race didn't envy Garrs in that moment.
He watched as the first hot flare of irritation lit up those eyes, watched as Spot opened his mouth to snarl a reprimand—then, unexpectedly, watched as he took a breath and bit back whatever verbal torrent he'd been about to unleash on his boys.
"We," Spot said instead, and without raising his voice, "are just fine."
Mild though the statement was, the undertones of anger were impossible to miss. The Brooklyn boys shuffled awkwardly, and Race could have sworn that even though they didn't go anywhere, their looming shadows seemed to shrink just a little.
"Sorry, boss," Garrs spoke up, after a long pause which Race guessed the group had probably spent trading indecisive glances with each other. "We was just checkin' on...well, that is...he been over here a long time."
"Yeah. So I noticed."
"We just wasn't sure, uh...if..."
Garrs floundered to a halt, and Spot sighed, tapping Race's jaw lightly before letting his hand fall away, giving his boys his full attention. The interval of silence that followed was broken only by the tiny scuffle and crunch of gravel fragments beneath bootsoles as the boys shifted uneasily from one foot to the other. When Spot finally spoke again, the ire had all but dissipated from his tone. "First of all. You did the right thing, agreeing to him coming over here tonight."
There was a chorus of mumbled acknowledgements.
"I know if there's anyone I can count on, it's you boys. From now on, if Race wants to come talk to me, he comes to talk to me, got it?"
This time they sounded much less uncertain. "Yeah." "Got it, boss."
"And if I ever change my mind, you'll be the first to know."
"Sure thing, boss."
"There anything else?"
"No. That's, uh, it."
"Then get yourselves somewhere that ain't here and take a breather. Somewheres you can relax and not have to worry about your overbearing boss hearin' you talk." There were some protests at this, but Spot waved at their quiet surroundings. "What do you think's gonna happen to me in here? Now go." They got while the getting was good; Garrs' tallest shadow was the last to leave, his steps reluctant.
Race waited until they were out of earshot before saying, "Actually, if you ever change your mind about me being welcome here, I'd appreciate bein' the first to know."
"If you ever decide to do anything to make yourself not welcome here, you'd know it long before."
Race weighed that for a moment. "That's fair."
He waited until the boys were even farther away before taking a hasty swipe with his sleeve at the faintly-damp track that still remained on his cheek. Maybe the tunnel had been dark enough that they hadn't seen. Then again, even if they had, it was going to take a brave man to mock him for it when Spot so openly hadn't.
"You know," Race ventured, "for a minute I really thought I was going to see some heads get torn off there."
"I thought about it," Spot said casually, but then he sobered. "No. You don't know them, but they'se good men, each of 'em. Trouble is, they don't know you either, they don't know Jacky, and they don't know this place. How far away did they get?"
Race squinted down the tunnel to where the group from Brooklyn had returned more or less to the place where they'd had their supper, where the small space had been left clear. "Dunno. Twenty feet, maybe? I ain't too good at this stuff."
"Twenty feet." Spot's shrug conveyed a it'll have to do, though his expression remained troubled. "They ain't used to leaving me alone. Ain't done it in a long time, much less in some new place fulla strangers. But god knows they could use a break."
A small echo of the earlier constriction in Race's chest returned. "Ain't fulla strangers for you though, I hope."
"Only some." He seemed about to say more, then fell silent. Race, however, didn't miss the way his fingers twitched restlessly before Spot seemingly caught himself and clenched them into fists.
Race paused for a long moment, then prompted quietly, "I'se still here."