Cold Snap

"This is just wrong," Mush said, pulling off his sweater. He plopped down on a park bench and regarded the grass. It was brown and dead, but not covered in snow, which, by his calculations, it should have been. But it hadn't snowed at all so far. In fact, it wasn't even chilly.

It was almost seventy degrees out. Which would have been lovely for the summer--everyone said it was too hot all summer, and would have killed for a day where it was only seventy degrees out. But that was in the summer.

This was winter. In fact, it was Christmas Eve. And it had been unseasonably warm for weeks, and now that it was the morning of Christmas Eve, the lovely, balmy weather just seemed wrong.

He dropped his papers on the bench and looked up at the sky. It was starting to cloud over, dark grey clouds. It would start raining soon. Rain on Christmas. He groaned. There was no point in selling in the rain, and he hadn't wanted to sell on Christmas Eve anyway.

He sighed and leaned back on the bench, shutting his eyes for a moment--only to be grabbed roughly from behind. "Hey, what--"

"Gotcha!"

He was released, and Mush spun to see Blink behind him, grinning.

"Why, you..." Mush grumbled.

Blink vaulted over the bench and sat down at Mush's side, his hand automatically reaching for Mush's. Not holding it, not really, just running his thumb over Mush's fingers. "How ya doing? Sweating?"

"Yeah," Mush muttered. "I hate this winter. I wish it would just snow already!"

Blink laughed. "You wouldn't say that if it was snowing. You'd be wishing for weather like this."

Mush rolled his eyes.

"Anyway, I sold my papes, so I'm gonna head home and get ready for Christmas. You wanna come?"

"No," Mush said, and gestured to the stack of remaining papers, all of which had a headline about the heat wave.

"Aww, too bad," Blink said, running his thumb across Mush's knuckles. "You should just come home with me. No one else'll be there yet..."

"I can't," Mush objected. "I'd be out fifty cents, and I can't afford to lose that much." He raised an eyebrow. "Not when I spent it on someone's Christmas present last week so I ain't got the cash for the house tonight."

Blink frowned. "You shouldn't a' done that."

"Yeah, well." Mush shrugged. He'd been looking in the windows of shops and had seen a cigar case with a picture burnt right into the wood. It showed an old fashioned ship with giant sales. Blink was crazy for pirates and he'd love it, and it would give him something to keep his smokes in. And it had only been fifty cents--Mush had expected it to be a few bucks.

"No, serious." Blink leaned up against him casually. Well, kind of casually. Anyone who didn't already know probably would have thought it was casual. "I didn't get you anything. I'm sorry, I was broke all week, Race cleaned me out of poker and I just didn't have any ideas..."

"Don't worry about it," Mush answered.

"No, but it's not... Here." Blink stood up, grabbed Mush's papers, and shouldered them. "You go home, I'll meet you there, okay?"

"But--"

"I didn't get you nothing, I can at least do your selling for you a little. I'll bring you everything, 'cause they're your papes, of course, and you won't have to work. I'll sell the afternoon edition for you, too."

"You don't gotta."

"No, no." Blink sounded like he was getting excited about the idea. "I'll sell for you and give you a day off."

Mush sighed. "I don't know."

Blink leaned down until they were almost nose to nose. "Well, I know. You go on and take a day off. I'll meet you at home in a few hours." He winked and then turned and started off down the road, not looking back.

Mush sighed. Well, maybe he could get a nap or something. Five in the morning came awfully early, especially on Christmas. A little extra shut eye was never a bad thing...

*

It was the sound of people yelling in surprise that woke him up. He had told Kloppman what was going on on the way in, and the old man had grumbled but let him in without his usual lecture on work ethics. But now it seemed like most people were home, and it must have been much later than he'd thought. There was no light coming in through the window, but a group of newsies gathered around staring out.

He pushed his way through the crowd. "What's going on?"

"It's all covered in ice!"

"What?"

Mush frowned and squinted. Sure enough, the window panes seemed to have a layer of frost or ice outside them, and through the glass and ice, he could see it was pouring. But if there was ice, it wouldn't really be rain. The sound was too hard for snow, though, which meant sleet.

"When did this happen?"

"It started a while after noon," Jack said. "It started raining and got cold real fast. Snowed for awhile, but now it's just sleet. Maybe some hail."

"Is everyone home okay?" Mush asked, knowing that none of the boys would have been prepared for this. Regardless of having to eat their losses, they'd all have hurried home to warm up and dry off. Coming in out of the rain was just common sense, and no newsie was really dumb enough not to.

Except...

Well, Blink was a sweet enough boy, and always meant well, but as Kloppman had once put it, he didn't have the common sense that God gave a goat. Mush scanned the crowd quickly, but didn't see the familiar blond hair and wide grin anywhere.

"Blink back yet?" he asked anxiously.

"Nope," Jack said.

Race piped up with, "I saw him on my way home. He was heading out again, trying to get a few more sold. I told him no one was buying, and everyone's home for Christmas anyway, but he said he'd sell all his papes if it killed him."

"Just might," Jack said. "I was the last one in. It's cold out."

"Blink must owe someone money or something," Race said.

Mush swallowed hard. "I hope he's okay," he said quietly.

*

Three hours later, the Christmas Eve celebration was in full swing. Kloppman had put together a veritable feast... at least compared to normal lodging house meals. And there was warm cider, spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg. Everyone was happy, digging in with relish, and passing the drinks. Some people had bought presents for others, and everyone was in a good mood.

Except Mush, who was sitting in front of the front window, staring out. He had a mug of cider in one hand, but wasn't drinking it. He was just worried. Blink still wasn't home, and there was nowhere open tonight. Even bartenders wanted to be with their families on Christmas.

It wasn't like Blink couldn't break into a warehouse or a basement or something, he had done it before when the weather got too bad, Mush knew. But he'd have been so unprepared, and if Mush hadn't been complaining, he would have just come home. But instead, he was caught somewhere in the cold snap, alone, probably freezing...

"Hey, cheer up," Race said. "Here." He pulled the mug out of Mush's hand and replaced it with a fresh one, with cider that was actually still hot. "He'll be home soon."

"How do you know that?" Mush demanded.

"'Cause Blink's tough. And he'd do anything to get back to you for Christmas." Racetrack smirked. "'Specially 'cause I told him what you got for him."

"Hey! You promised you wouldn't!" Mush yelped.

Race grinned and sauntered off smugly. Mush scowled and took a gulp of cider. It was nice, warm and spicy. But still, he stared out the window. No one was out on the streets; everything was slicked over with layers of snow, ice, snow, and more ice.

Blink wasn't home, and he wasn't coming home. Mush just had to hope he'd be there tomorrow, when it let up--he'd be crazy to still be on the streets now. Mush would rather he was somewhere safe and warm than out and trying to get home.

But then there was a slight movement, just at the edge of the road. Mush craned his neck and stared, and sure enough, someone was determinedly making his way up the road. He was mostly sliding along the ice-slicked streets, hunched over against the wind. But as he got closer, Mush could see more clearly. He was battered and shivering, but the figure was Blink.

He stood and started for the door, but Jack grabbed his arm. "Don't you go out there and get yourself sick," he warned.

"But--"

"He'll make it in fine," Jack said, and they both waited at the door. It took far too long for Blink to make his way down the road, but they had the door open as he stepped on to the stoop.

"Blink!" Mush yelled, and Blink practically fell forwards and into his waiting arms. He was freezing; his shirt was meant for the summer, and was dripping with cold water. His hair had been wet, then froze, and fell in thick icy chunks. His lips were blue and his skin was paper white.

"You look like a drowned rat," Jack mused.

"C-cold," Blink stuttered.

Mush didn't even look around as he led Blink up to the bunkroom. Kloppman followed quickly. "You young fool," Kloppman ranted. "Staying out in that weather like an idiot. Ain't go the sense God gave a goat. Ain't even got the sense God gave a pig. Damn fool thing to do, you could have frozen solid out there, lost a limb, too. Mush, you get him out of those clothes and wrapped in blankets while I get a bath heated up. I got no sympathy, you fool."

He ambled out of the room, still rambling angrily, and Mush followed his instructions. He peeled Blink's soaking clothes off, not listening to Blink's weak protestations about dignity and underclothes. And it wasn't as though Mush hadn't seen it all before anyway. He wrapped his own blanket around Blink, and then grabbed Blink's and used it to begin to towel dry his hair and face.

"Mush," Blink said, through chattering teeth. "H-here." He held out his hand, and only then did Mush noticed it was clenched into a fist. Getting it open was hard; Blink's muscles were barely working at that point. But clenched in the fist were a number of frozen coins. Fifty cents. "Merry Ch-Christmas." Blink sneezed. "I-I don't feel so good..."

"You'll be fine," Mush said, and glanced around. Kloppman wasn't back yet, so he risked a quick kiss. Blink's lips were freezing. "And you were right, I wish this hadn't happened. I'll never wish for cold weather again." He stood up, and helped Blink to his feet. "Now, let's get you into a nice, hot bath..."

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