Notes: Thank you to Freya, Teresa, Sigrid and Alicia for the betas. You're all amazing and wonderful.
Having to know to understand
Jack was having dinner with them again – it had almost become routine after the strike ended. David couldn't quite comprehend how quickly life returned to normal, but the strike had happened quickly so it almost made sense that normalcy should return quickly as well. He supposed.
Over dinner David answered Mayer's questions about work before Jack took over, retelling their day making it sound more exciting than it'd been. David couldn't keep the grin off his face as he watched Jack. Sarah and his mother made appropriate noises at appropriate times; his father commented every once in a while, but mostly it was just Jack at center stage, with David pointing out when Jack's improvements got too out of hand, and Les providing sounds and always, always backing Jack up. It felt comfortable, standard for them already, and Jack grinned at David as he talked. Sarah smiled softly at Jack across the table and tried to insinuate herself into the conversation, asking about Spot and Mush, and the other newsies whose names she could remember. David felt a rush of emotions, not unlike the emotions he felt when he saw Sarah and Jack kissing at the strike, but this time it was recognisable – it flared like a sudden pain, but feeling familiar. He could name the emotions – anger, annoyance. He tried to dismiss them, but they flared again as Sarah stood to clear the table, kissing Jack on the cheek as she took his plate.
David looked at Jack, saw him start to blush, a light pink at the tip of his ears and on his throat. David clenched his fists unconsciously, stared down at his hands and then unclenched them, appalled at himself. When he looked up again, though, Jack was smiling at him, a little strained, but David smiled back anyway, and relaxed a little. He smiled awkwardly at Sarah when she asked for his help with the washing up, but the feelings of annoyance, guilt and something unnameable were still there, like an ache in his stomach.
He stood next to Sarah, hands deep in suds, watching her smile as she scrubbed the plates, pausing every now and then to pass him another glass or piece of cutlery. He wondered how much time she actually spent talking to Jack – whenever he was over at the apartment, he was always either at the dinner table, or on the fire escape with David. As far as David knew, Jack never came just to visit Sarah and for some reason, he found that comforting.
Sarah was humming softly, something that sounded suspiciously like one of the newsies' tunes or one of Medda's songs, maybe - obviously happy. All of her family together, her brothers and her Jack and David felt the ache in his stomach flare briefly. It was almost like the time when they were much younger, when Sarah was allowed to stay up with their mother long past David's bedtime, helping her darn their clothes; they'd sit together, humming in the living room and David would lay in bed and listen, angry that he wasn't allowed to join in. But that was a long time ago, Sarah didn't have anything he didn't any more, and David couldn't make sense of anything.
Sarah called Les over to dry the dishes, but he'd fallen asleep against Esther, and Jack came to help instead. Sarah smiled at him; a soft, tender smile, almost like the ones she'd give Les, as he came to stand next to David.
"You don't have to help," she said, almost cooing, and for a moment David wished he were anywhere else, but Jack pushed him lightly and grinned at him, not Sarah, when he answered and David was happy where he was.
And he didn't understand why.
The newsies touched a lot, David noticed. Sitting in the beat-up diner where the Manhattan newsies generally could be found before the afternoon edition came out, waiting for the food to come, David was pretty sure every newsie that had dropped in was touching another newsie, in some way. Next to him, Blink was leaning on Mush so he could talk to Jack, sitting on the other side of David, resting warmly against his shoulders and back. Across the table, Race was mock-fighting Les, Snitch was stealing food off Race's plate, half sitting on Boot's lap in order to reach. Up at the counter Snoddy and Itey were leaning on each other as they counted their coins, trying to figure out if they had enough money to order.
It was normal. No one raised an eyebrow at the constant closeness, though David supposed that after sharing a bed, as Jack had told him sometimes was necessary in the lodging house, there were very few boundaries left. But even he was perfectly at ease with the touching, he hadn't even thought about it before now. There was nothing strange or uncomfortable about reaching across Mush to steal French fries from Blink or mock punching Mush when he slapped David's hand away.
But there was something strange about the warmness of Jack's arm; something unusual about the way he felt when Jack touched him. Blink, Mush, the other newsies, their touches didn't seem to linger, he didn't still feel warm after Race hugged him, or Mush ruffled his hair. But he could feel the warmth of Jack's arm, still there even as Jack bickered about headlines with Racetrack, and he could still feel Jack's fingers curled around his arm from earlier – Jack had spotted one of the bulls, and had grabbed David instinctively, then realized what he was doing and started laughing, leaning on David, hand still clutching David's arm. And David had laughed with him, too warm and clammy, but happy and he hadn't minded Jack's weight against him.
Their food came, and Blink immediately leaned over to steal some of David's fries, only to get his hand slapped away by Mush. "David didn't get none of yours either," he explained, nudging Blink with his shoulder in an almost apology, and then took a fry himself. "For helping you out," he said with a grin, and Jack laughed, right near David's ear. David tried not to shiver. Jack removed his arm to eat, but he was still seated shoulder to shoulder with David and if David was leaning a little more on him than strictly necessary, well, all the newsies touched each other. It wasn't unusual. He hoped.
Something about Jack made it easy to touch him. There was something that made it easy to reach out for Jack, throw an arm around him, anything; something about the way he smiled, the tilt of his head perhaps, or the openness he exuded. It wasn't strange to want to touch Jack, not really, not when he smiled like that, all comfortable and open. It wasn't weird to sit close to Jack, closer than was even needed given the space. Jack didn't seem to have any inhibitions about touching him either, but he was used to it, David reasoned, newsies being who they were.
They sat outside, close enough that David could count Jack's breaths, in, out, in, steady and sure, the smell of the city lingering in the humid air. It was peaceful and just nice in a way David found mildly disconcerting; he felt almost sleepy, calm in a way he couldn't quite understand.
Jack was quieter than normal, but maybe he just didn't have anything to say. David almost snorted out loud at that thought – in the time he'd known Jack (which wasn't all that long, David realized, just over a month), he'd hardly ever seen Jack at a loss for words. Well, there had been a few moments during the strike, David thought, and then dropped that train of thought and counted Jack's breaths, wondering if he should start a conversation.
"You think we're serious?" Jack asked, not looking at David. It took David a few seconds to figure out who Jack was talking about, and he felt a little dismayed when he realized he was talking about Sarah.
"I don't know," David answered, staring at his hands. They were inky from the papes – he must've forgotten to wash them before dinner.
"D'you think she…you think I'm important to her?" and Jack still wasn't looking at him, which didn't make David feel any better, and for a brief, fleeting moment he was tempted to lie, say no, but then maybe Jack wouldn't be around as often and the thought caused a sharp pain somewhere inside him.
"I…Jack, I don't know." There was a pause, four breaths and then David bit his lip and asked, "Do you…you know, do you love her?"
Jack looked at him then, mouth hanging open, eyes wide with what looked slightly like panic – David bit back a sudden laugh at his expression.
"What kind of question is that? I don't know, Davey," Jack looked away again, "I barely know her."
And David wasn't supposed to be happy about that, but he couldn't help it.
"I like her," Jack added, as if to apologize, but David was distracted, trying to get his emotions under control and just nodded. Jack took this as a sign to continue. "I don't know nothing about love, Dave. I mean…what's love? How do you know what love is?" Jack was staring up at the sky, as if the stars he couldn't see might have the answer to that.
"I suppose it's need. Trust. I…my parents, like that – trust in each other. Affection." David watched Jack's face, watched him stare at the sky, lips parted.
"Want," Jack added, looking at him without turning his head and David felt something bloom inside him, dark and rich and strange.
Of all the newsies, David had quickly realized that Racetrack was probably the closest to Jack - his second in command, though David wasn't ever going to voice that thought, since he didn't particularly want Race to soak him. He was small, but fierce and David had seen enough of him in a fight to know that he could hold his own. On top of that, David had a feeling Race was pretty perceptive – probably picked it up along with his gambling habit – and that he was helpful, underneath the sarcasm and comebacks. So when he ended up alone with Racetrack at a table in the diner a few days later, while Les ordered and Jack argued with Skittery about selling spots, an ongoing argument that David didn't even want to understand, he seized the opportunity to ask questions.
"So, how'd Jack end up the leader, anyway?"
Race shot him an appraising look. "He ain't," he said, and David just looked at him, and after a moment Race shrugged. "He's just the most noticeable. Got a loud mouth and he's enthusiastic. The little ones love him, I guess – they comes to him when they're in trouble. And of course, he's the best newsie on the island," Race shrugged again, and went back to counting his coins, but David wasn't quite satisfied – and he had a feeling Race was being evasive.
"But that's not all. I mean, you – we all followed him during the strike,"
Race rolled his eyes. "So you know as well as I do," he said, but he seemed to consider the question for a moment. David watched Jack up at the counter, saying something to Les, who was staring at him wide-eyed. Jack was gesturing animatedly, his mouth curled in the almost-smile he got when he told a story that was supposedly serious and most likely not quite true. David tried to ignore the warm feeling curling in his stomach and turned his attention back to Racetrack, who was looking at him with a speculative expression.
"You seen him. He's a good talker, and he follows up," Race paused for a moment. "Well, eventually." Race's bitterness wasn't exactly surprising – David had noticed that there still was a little anger lingering amongst some of the newsies, win be damned. "You know how he is, saw him with Conlon – people listen when he talks. Even when they ain't his words."
David smiled, a little embarrassed, and Race quirked his lips, almost a grin.
"But don't go thinking we couldn't have pulled it off without you. Or Jack."
David just grinned at him.
There was a lot of truth to what Racetrack had said, but as he watched Jack sell the afternoon papes, David had a feeling Race had forgotten to mention the most important part of Jack's abilities – his charm. It was hot, humid, and the headline was only good – streak of robberies in lower Manhattan continues - not brilliant enough for David to be able to work up much enthusiasm, but Jack was selling it as if nothing more exciting had ever happened in Manhattan, or in all of New York, even without too many embellishments and improvements.
It was something about his smile, David decided, cocky and sure of himself, but still with enough vulnerability to charm the women passing by – the ones not already being conned by Les, girls about Sarah's age (and there was that flare of emotion again, not as strong as with Sarah, but still there) or older single women, a little too cynical to be taken in by Les. It was quite a sight to watch; it must have taken Jack years to learn, or maybe, David thought, maybe he was just born that way. He watched as Jack yelled the headline, then another smaller story at a young man a little older than them, who was hurrying by with books under his arm. He stopped and looked at Jack, and Jack smiled at him. "Penny a pape, sir?" The man seemed to calm down for a moment, and felt around for a penny, paying for his paper with a small 'thanks', before hurrying on. David was sure he wouldn't have stopped if it had been him selling.
Jack turned to grin at him, "Dave, you ain't working." That smile wasn't practiced, it wasn't the selling smile. That smile was all Jack, or so David assumed: goofy, cocky and somehow sweet. The heat from the diner was back, curling in his stomach like a warm drink, not uncomfortable even in the summer heat. It was one of those smiles that made David want something indefinable, something to do with touching Jack and closer and strange swirls in his stomach that he didn't understand. He did his best to ignore it.
"I'm doing plenty," he shot back, and Jack smirked.
"I sold six papes in the time you been dreaming," he said.
David punched him on the shoulder. "Yeah, yeah, but I'm not the best newsie in Manhattan," and Jack grinned a little embarrassedly - still cocky, though, proud of himself.
"Yeah, but you're supposed be smart and learning from me," Jack told him, smiling at a passing woman, who didn't notice him but did stop to buy a pape from Les.
"Somehow I don't think good looks are learnable," David said and immediately wished he hadn't. But Jack just smiled that smile again, blushing a little, and David couldn't help smiling back.
When Jack and Sarah ended their - well, it wasn't quite a relationship, David supposed. Flirtation might actually be more accurate, not that David really knew – he and Jack never spoke about it much. But when Jack ended it, David wasn't really surprised. He hadn't be expecting it (though somewhere deep inside of him, if he was honest, he'd sort of hoped for it, but he'd pushed those feelings down, away, out of his mind), but it wasn't a shock.
He went into the kitchen one morning, hardly awake and still blinking to clear the sleep from his eyes and found Jack and Sarah standing close, but not touching – Sarah looked resigned, hands folded in front of her, blinking a little too rapidly as if she was trying not to cry. Jack looked guilty and apologetic and David felt torn between wanting to comfort them both and wanting to yell at Jack for hurting Sarah. Even so, he still couldn't quite ignore or dispel the feeling of relief that was spreading like warmth slowly though him. He settled for backing out of the kitchen, but Jack looked up and saw him. He smiled a small, worried smile, nothing like the smiles David was used to.
Sarah seemed to collect herself when she noticed David and gave him a wan smile that made him feel guilty all over again; as Jack all but bolted out the door, David hugged her briefly and whispered, "it'll be all right," in her ear, before following Jack.
She smiled again, a little brighter this time.
Down on the street, Jack stood waiting, looking just as worried as in the kitchen, shifting restlessly from foot to foot, seemingly unable to look directly at David.
"I couldn't…I mean, I…she deserves better, you know?" the words came out hurried and Jack seemed to stumble over them, addressing them to a cobble stone left of David.
David stepped up to Jack and rested a hand on his shoulder. Jack to looked up at him, but he couldn't think of anything to say; Jack didn't seem to expect him to anyway. David smiled slightly and Jack tried for a grin, though he was obviously still uncomfortable.
"It just…it wasn't enough, Davey. I'm, you know, I can't…I'm sorry."
David squeezed his shoulder.
"Jack, it'll be all right." he tilted his head, looked away briefly, gathering his thoughts, and then looked back at Jack. "You're still my friend, that doesn't change." Behind him he could hear Les open the door and come into the street.
Jack just smiled at David, looking relieved.
Sarah actually talked more when Jack wasn't there, David noticed. It was rather peculiar not having him there during dinner – he begged off, saying it would have been too awkward. David knew Jack was right, but the look on his face, lost and insecure behind the smile, made David want to bring him home anyway. He'd settled for squeezing Jack's shoulder, and when Jack had pulled him into a warm hug, he'd hugged back, perhaps harder than he should have, half tempted to just follow Jack home to the lodging house. Jack looked happier afterwards, even if it hadn't dispelled the small feeling of loss somewhere in David's chest.
Dinner at the Jacobs without the usual wild stories was still surprisingly energetic - David had all but forgotten what it was like to not have Jack there. Mayer and Esther asked questions about their days, mostly answered by an over-enthusiastic Les – David had thought that selling papes would have started to bore Les by now, but it seemed to be having the opposite effect. Sarah answered her questions shortly, but she was curious as to David's day. She and David ended up spending the rest of the meal talking about the newsies; David couldn't help noticing that she was genuinely curious, and he had a feeling it wasn't just about Jack as much as it was about a life she wasn't a part of. David felt a little sorry for her; he didn't always enjoy being a newsie, but being able to bring in money was a good feeling, and spending time with the newsies was fun. Spending time with Jack particularly, but David stopped that thought almost before it formed, unsure why. Sarah, on the other hand, wasn't a part of that despite her helping end the strike, and David couldn't help feeling bad for her.
He helped her clear the table for once, and ended up bumping into her, a crash of cutlery and glasses; it made him laugh, and she shot him a bright smile. As they cleaned the plates together, she started to hum. David tried to hum along, rather off key and not quite the same tune, and Sarah couldn't hide her giggles. It was comfortable and made David slightly nostalgic for the days before his father's accident when everything seemed a little easier.
But things were easier again, and David didn't particularly want to give up being a newsie, didn't particularly want to give up what he had right now – it wasn't perfect, but it was something, and for once he fit in somewhere other than at home, was a part of something bigger.
From the bedroom he and Les shared, he could hear his mother humming a lullaby – Les had fallen asleep again.
"You're doing the drying," he said, but Sarah glared at him and he picked up a towel and helped her – he'd seen that look enough times in his life to know that Sarah was going to use her status as big sister to force him to anyway.
Later he sat out on the fire escape, alone for the first time in a while, trying to read –he rarely found time to do so these days, even though his father kept reminding him to study, not to fall too far behind. But he found it impossible to focus on the book. His mind kept leaping to other subjects, thinking about anything but the book: tomorrow's headline, the heat, the money he'd made, the conversation with Race, the strike and Jack. That was where his thoughts always lead these days - always back to Jack. The way Jack sold papes, Jack and Sarah, the way Jack had lead the strike, Jack's betrayal - which still stung, even though Jack had explained why - and Jack's smile. Jack's constant touches - his arm across David's back, his hand on his arm, Jack hugging him. And that led to thoughts of wanting to touch Jack, wanting to get closer to Jack, even when they were hugging, or touching otherwise, emotions he didn't understand, the annoyance at Jack's relationship with Sarah, the warm rush of happiness he felt just thinking about Jack. He couldn't help the feeling that it wasn't quite usual to spend so much time focused on one person, but, he reasoned, so much of his life revolved around being a newsie now, and Jack was a part of that, part of his life. Yet David couldn't shake the feeling that that didn't explain it at all.
The air was cool outside compared to the almost humid warmth of the apartment. Jack leaned against the rails of the fire escape, rocking slightly on the balls of his feet. David came to stand next to him, looking down into the alley.
"Your family's really something, Dave," Jack said, turning to look at him. "I never thought I'd've gotten invited here again, you know… after Sarah." He smiled, a little concerned still, but genuinely happy and David couldn't help smiling back. It continually surprised him how much his family meant to Jack, though he supposed it shouldn't.
"Les would've worn them down sooner or later," David pointed out, though it'd actually been Sarah who'd told David to bring Jack home for dinner. "He's been asking me every day this week when you were allowed to come back." Jack laughed, but he seemed a little distracted.
"Still… It matters to me, you know. Your family." Jack was still looking at him, not smiling now, but there was something in his eyes, something David couldn't quite understand. He swallowed around a sudden lump in his throat.
"I know," he said, reaching out to rest a hand next to Jack's on the railing. Jack's hand moved to cover his briefly and David's hand felt warm, almost prickly, where Jack's hand had touched it. He smiled at Jack, awkward and a little forced, but Jack just looked at him as if he was searching for something and David couldn't look away.
Jack leaned down and kissed him, warm chapped lips against David's for less than a breath.
David froze, and then exhaled. The warm feeling in his stomach intensified, twisting and dancing and the lump in his throat seemed suddenly bigger. Somewhere at the back of his mind things were starting to click into place, but it still didn't make sense. He looked at Jack, who wasn't looking at him at all.
"Dave…it ain't, not if you…Davey," Jack sounded lost, not himself at all. David wanted to say something, wanted to reach out, but Jack had just kissed him, and David didn't know what he was supposed to do. He touched his lips, surprised to find that they weren't warmer than usual. He hadn't minded the kiss; he'd liked the kiss and he was sure, somewhere deep inside of him that he wasn't supposed to have liked the kiss, but he wanted…he wanted Jack to look at him, to explain.
"Jack," he said, reaching out to touch his face. Jack looked at him, a strange mix of hope and worry on his face, and David dropped his hand. "What…I mean…why?" David was trying to keep up, but his mind kept focusing on two things: Jack had kissed him, and boys weren't supposed to kiss. But he wanted to kiss Jack again, wanted to touch him, pull him closer.
"'Cause I never wanted to kiss your sister," Jack said, looking shameful, but David's heart leapt, which he knew it wasn't supposed to do – he wasn't supposed to feel irrationally happy, giddy and confused, he wasn't supposed to have been jealous of Sarah, and Jack wasn't supposed to have kissed him. He tried to clear his mind, but it didn't work and he couldn't stop staring at Jack, who looked lost and hopeful, and just begging to be touched.
"But, Jack, we're guys. You're not supposed to want to kiss me," David said even as he reached out for Jack again, one hand curling around Jack's wrist.
"I know, Davey, all right? And I tried, I… But I like you, I like you a lot." Jack looked at David's hand on his wrist, before dragging a hand through his hair. David wondered what it felt like. "I…I can't stop thinking about…I mean, about touching you, like - like I'm supposed to want to touch girls."
David felt like his heart had stopped beating for a moment, words stuck in his throat, and he made up his mind. He tugged Jack closer.
"I know," he said, and kissed Jack. For a moment, all that seemed to exist was Jack's mouth against his as he tasted traces of cigarette on Jack's lips, but then Jack had a hand on David's waist, tugging him closer, and the world expanded again, Jack's body against his. One of David's hand clung to Jack's wrist as the other cautiously touched Jack's hair which was greasy but soft, and David sighed against Jack's mouth.
And he could feel Jack's smile.
Jack was arguing with Skittery again, something about Central Park and alleys in winter, but David was only half listening as he picked at his food. Across the table, Blink, Racetrack and Mush were deep in conversation about a recent poker game and particularly a couple of the newsies girls who'd been present – they kept trying to involve David, but he had a hard time focusing, and not much to add to the subject anyway. A quick look around the diner told him that Les was playing marbles with Boots over at another table, and probably losing spectacularly; it wouldn't have been the first time.
Jack's shoulder was warm through the fabric of his shirt and David was incredibly aware of Jack's thigh against his; every once in a while, Jack would glance at him, smiling, and every time, David felt an answering smile curl at the corner of his lips. He wondered if it was obvious how he felt about Jack. That he was in love with him, and David knew he was, knew it couldn't be anything else, not with the way Jack made him feel. He slid his foot closer to Jack's under the table. Jack didn't turn around, but he did push back against David's foot.
David suppressed a grin.
It was strange, he thought, watching Jack's hands move as he talked; love had never seemed important to him, he'd never really thought about it. And now here he was, and there wasn't any other word for what he felt for Jack, who was a boy and David had never heard about anything like that before. But if it wasn't love, the kind you found in books, the kind that Sarah used to talk about in a far-away voice when she was younger, then it didn't make sense that Jack kissing him quickly in an alleyway when they were out selling should mean so much or that the brush of Jack's hand against his hip as they walked made his stomach twist. The way the blush on Jack's face as David ran a hand across his stomach made him feel hot all over and that just the feel of Jack, pressed up against him while they ate lunch made him happy, David didn't have another word for it. He'd tried to find another description, but none fit, none held all of what he and Jack were. David watched Jack absently scratch at the table with a nail and smiled despite himself.
"David, you're daydreaming again," Jack said, and David pushed him.
"Not everyone talks just to hear themselves speak," David told him, and Jack pushed at him, while Mush and Blink laughed and Race sniggered behind his hand.
"Mouth," Jack said, almost fondly, and David smiled up at him, content. Under the table, Jack squeezed his hand, and something twisted in David's stomach, familiar and warm, and now the feeling had a name.