David rubbed his face as he went up to the back stage door, hearing his friends' voices booming from inside. It was past 6 o'clock, the sunlight beginning to brighten with the sunset across the city.
He was going to forget about last night; he wouldn't mention it at all, especially not to Jack.
But when he stepped through the backstage door and saw his friend's dark expression, he guessed that he already knew.
Jack charged at him and pinned him roughly to the wall next to the door, his hard fingers splayed over his chest. The other guys grew quiet as they watched Jack. He was furious, had been for hours, ever since he had heard Mush, Kid Blink, and Race talking in the bathroom. He'd already scolded them.
David stared at Jack in disbelief, his chest aching. "Jack, what-"
"I want ya ta neva do that again," Jack boomed in his face. "Ya hear me, dumbass? I neva want ya ta do that again."
"Jack," David stammered. "We had to—I had to do something-"
"An' that somethin' coulda killed ya," Jack snapped.
David's eyebrows knitted and he saw that it wasn't anger in Jack's eyes: it was fear, fear for him. He glanced at Mush, Race and Kid Blink and they looked at him apologetically.
Jack followed David's gaze to the guys, "You're a couple a dumbasses, ya know that?"
"Yeah, we know that, Cowboy," Racetrack agreed.
Jack sighed and looked back to David. Jack put his hand behind David's neck, touching his forehead to his before pushing him away.
The rest of the week passed and the gloom that had been hanging around the boys and everywhere they went began to lift; the boys smiled and relaxed more, sensing that the danger had passed. Spot and his boys returned to Brooklyn but had parted with promises to come around more.
"Come by for a drink," Ira had said to Spot, winking at him and smiling to the boys behind him. "I owe you one."
Spot tilted his head to her, "It'd be my pleasure."
The boys visited Ira every day after rounds and stayed until well after sunset. They laughed and drank, in moderation, and still secretly kept watch over the theater. They didn't tell Ira; they knew she'd get angry and tell them to leave.
Jack stayed with her, sometimes waking in the middle of the night to her screams. He would soothe her, kissing her shoulder, and wait until she fell back to sleep. But he wouldn't; he stayed awake, staring at the window, wondering what was in her nightmares.
Some days were different than others. She would look at him differently; sometimes she looked angrier than an alley cat, ready to strike at him. They fought over little things, mostly her physical abilities. He wanted her to rest, she wanted to do anything but. Sometimes, he wondered if she picked a fight with him just so she would have something to do.
They'd shout until the window panes shook. But only on non-show days; Medda had continued her shows a few weeks after Ira had returned, and she told them repeatedly: "If you want somewhere to stay, keep quiet. I can't have my guests hear you two fight like dogs!"
But then there would be days that Ira stared at him sadly when she thought he couldn't see her. He'd see her, sitting on the bed with her feet touching the floor. He would kneel in front of her and look up into her stunning face, tracing his thumb over the skin where there used to be bruises. Her body was healing, but her heart was still broken.
He would sigh, frustrated and tired, and she would lean down to kiss him, whispering against his lips, "I'm sorry, Cowboy."
She didn't say those words much, so he knew she was being sincere.
The autumn weather was finally taking place in the city, the air cool and crisp when night fell. It was Thursday when the boys came by with Jack to see Medda and Ira. Jack had spent the last two nights at the Lodging House, checking on the others. He had to maintain his role as leader, to make sure David was doing a good job in his stead.
But Ira wasn't in the apartment.
Medda was in the kitchen, making tea. She looked over her shoulder and smiled at Jack, Race, Mush, Kid Blink, and David. Her light eyes crinkled.
"You won't find her here, gentlemen."
Jack's eyes flashed and Medda rolled her eyes at him.
"She's fine, Cowboy. Check the roof."
Confused and anxious, the boys clamored up the fire escape. Race was the first to reach the roof ledge and he held out a hand, stopping them.
"S'matta?" Jack asked irritably.
"Shh!" Race scolded. He waited for a long moment, then smiled down at Jack, "Take a look, Cowboy."
Glaring, Jack climbed up next to Race, followed by David, Mush and Kid Blink. He froze.
She was there, dancing on the roof, the bright evening sunlight painting her in colors of orange, pink and red. Her movements were almost graceful except for the slight shaking in her thighs and abdomen. Her hair brushed her face and her bare shoulders; she wore her light chemise and her favorite skirt, tucked into her waist band and brushing her tight caves. Her movements started out small, and grew as she stretched her legs to the sky, her body forming perfect lines.
"She started last Friday," came Medda's voice from the landing below the boys. "She woke me in the middle of the night, unable to sleep. She's been dancing up here while you slept," she said sweetly to Jack, watching him stare at her. "At first, I had to help her up the fire escape. It wasn't easy…but you know how she is. But now, she can do it alone."
Jack climbed over the ledge, stepping onto the roof. He stood a few yards away with his hands in his pockets, his eyes narrowed. It was impossible…her face didn't reveal any pain. His throat felt tight. It was as if she had never been hurt.
When she stopped, she was facing away from him, looking out to the sunset, the buildings of New York glowing warmly. She turned her head and her eyes met his, her hair blowing around her face. She stared for a moment and he wondered if she had known he was standing there. Her lips smiled a little, her eyes sparkling with a look he hadn't seen in a while.
"Hello, Cowboy," she said huskily.
He swallowed, eyeing her carefully, "You alright?"
She nodded. He could see the excitement in her eyes: the light inside her had been gone for what seemed like years, and he had watched her struggle each day, seen the agony growing within her. She had been so unhappy, restless, like a bird with no wings.
He looked at her, thinking about what Medda had said about her dancing up here at night while he had been sleeping…She must have felt guilty for waking him. Or maybe she needed to escape, needed to be alone. She had needed to dance, her body needed it. And now, she glowed.
He swallowed again, unable to look away from her face. She was happy, truly happy. Even when she wasn't smiling, he could see that.
Her eyes were intense as they looked at him, shimmering with wetness.
"Did you see me?" she asked, her voice breaking softly.
His jaw tightened and he nodded. "Yeah." He looked away from her.
She saw the others behind him and she smiled a little. "It doesn't hurt very much."
Kid Blink smiled sadly at her, "'s good…that's good."
David smiled at her hopefully. Mush was leaning on the roof ledge, his chin resting on his folded arms, staring at her, relieved.
"You're gonna be ready ta knock 'em dead in no time," Race said with a smirk. "Hell, she does that even when she can't dance…"
Her eyes flickered to Jack again, and when he looked up at her, he saw a tear run down her cheek.
"I can't do some things," she said roughly. She sniffed, glancing away. "But I can still try," she said.
Jack approached her and took his right hand out of his pocket to touch her cheek, pushing away her hair. Her icy eyes looked up at him and he felt a tremor rock him from the inside.
"You don't need to," he said softly, feeling her warm skin under his fingers.
She smiled a little and placed her hand over his.