Outside, the snow was finally slowing, flakes growing larger and softer, and fewer. It had been falling all night, starting with the same grand, velvet slivers that drifted past the windowpanes and rising into a storm of innumerable flecks, filling a field of vision until you couldn’t see across the street, or even the street at all. Now, as the sun turned the clouds a muted pink, the last few snowflakes settled amongst their siblings for the long nap of winter.
Inside the lodging house, the boys slept on. All but one, that is, but he was the exception, as he hadn’t slept all night. Instead, he had been curled in a wooden chair, rather uncomfortable but uncaring, watching the progression of the storm. Now, he heaved a sigh, rubbing his knuckle against his eye in the fight versus sleep, pushing his glasses up his forehead in the process.
At least he would not be tired for long. Sleep or no sleep, there was something about the morning that always woke him, and by the time everyone else was up and about, they would have no reason to suspect he’d been up all night. In fact, they would see him arise from bed like always, but first he had to wake up a little more. If he lay down now, he really would fall asleep, and he felt as through he could sleep for weeks. Years, possibly. Instead, he allowed himself a yawn and stood, stretching.
Nearby, somebody else yawned.
Quickly, now fully awakened by fright, Specs scrambled into his bunk, drawing the covers over himself.
Moments ticked by, unmarked by anything. Specs was still and hushed, listening with all his might at the stifling silence, punctuated by the rustle of sheets as various boys tossed in sleep. After several minutes that stretched like hours, he let out a relieved breath. No one had seen him.
He waited quietly for the other boys to wake. The sun peaked through the window, sparkling with the memory of snow, drawing long rectangles of light across the floor. It crept slowly, inching its way along the floorboards before tentatively touching the nearest bedpost, tossing its shadow out before it.
One of the sleeping boys began to stir in earnest. Mumbling and cursing, Mush threw back his blanket, hissing as his toes made contact with the chilly floor. He groped about for his socks, stuffed his feet into them, and shuffled his way to the window. He was about to yank the drapes shut and return to bed, when he paused.
From over the top of his blanket, Specs watched his expression change from disgruntled, to confused, to understanding, before finally settling on joy.
"Guys!" Mush’s shout was blissful. "Guys, wake up! It snowed, come on, wake up!"
He ran from bed to bed, shoving at feet, slapping at backs, yanking back blankets, yelling all the while. Specs pretended to be irritated, and reached for his glasses, only to remember he was still wearing them. He was glad Mush had been too excited to notice.
From across the room, Mush was still bellowing, this time at Itey. "The first snow, guys, come on! It’s tradition, wake up!"
Specs yawned again, and by the time his jaw clacked shut, he felt a hand on his shoulder.
"Morning, Dutchy," he mumbled without looking.
Beside him, the blond boy smiled, and muttered something that passed for a very sleepy greeting. "Mry Krzmas."
With practiced ease, the boys lumbered out of bed in various states of wakefulness. It was not the usual speed with which they woke for one important reason – it was the one day of the year they didn’t have to work.
Jack got out of bed quickly, his face bright with a grin. "Merry Christmas, guys!" He was met with a mostly low grumble.
Specs watched him swing out of bed, where Racetrack was waiting with a sly smile.
"You going over to Dave’s tonight for a big Christmas dinner?"
"Nah." Jack brushed him off, "They don’t celebrate it. They had their big dinner a couple of days ago. It was weird, holiday dinner but no ham or nothing."
Specs rolled his eyes. A few bunks over, Mush had yet to give up hope. He was currently shaking Blink by the shoulders, doing his best to rouse him with his cries of "first snow!" and "tradition!"
With an instinctual grace, boys began to crowd around the window, younger ones first, the taller ones resting hands on small shoulders to get a better look. The street lay under a heavy blanket of snow, blinding in the dazzling sunlight, which seemed to bounce upward and lodge itself in the ever-widening grins of the newsboys. Soon, Mush was not alone.
With a sudden ferocity, the boys scampered around the lodging house, reaching for coats and hats and battered scarves, boots and gloves and woolen socks. Specs did the same, winding around his neck a blue scarf that had seen better days. He had perfected the art of positioning it perfectly; so another layer covered all of the holes. Dutchy grinned as he pulled on a mismatched pair of gloves missing about four and a half fingertips between them. In a matter of minutes, nearly every boy had fallen into the street, expelled from the lodging house with enough force to send the snow back into the air.
Blink made the first snowball. He was covert, packing it with his back turned, keeping it hidden until he could spring around with a cry and send it sailing straight into Mush’s face.
Mush sputtered while Blink laughed. He was laughing so hard, he didn’t notice Mush until the other boy had him tackled, shoveling snow into his shirt, and it was much too late to contemplate an escape.
Specs quickly took cover behind a snow-covered cart and began packing his arsenal. Carefully, he peeked over the top and tossed a snowball at the first boy he landed his eyes on. By the time Skittery squawked indignantly, Specs was once again hidden. Specs laughed to himself and launched another, this one hitting Bumlets square in the chest.
His laughter was short-lived, however. It wasn’t long before he was discovered, and he had to run from Racetrack’s surprisingly hard snowballs.
"Save me!" he cried as he dove behind Dutchy, shamelessly letting his friend take the snowball that was meant for him.
Dutchy whirled around. "Why you little--" But Specs had turned and ran before Dutchy could finish his sentence. What he hadn’t counted on was Dutchy following him.
It was a lost cause before it began, and Specs knew it. Dutchy was the faster runner; he’d proven it again and again, yet there they were, Specs barreling forward as fast as he could and Dutchy slowly narrowing the distance.
Specs made a dive into an alley and a sharp left at the other end of it. Looking around, he dashed up the steps to the front door of an apartment building and crouched behind the thick stone railings, listening. He heard Dutchy come out from the alley, snow crunching beneath his boots, and stop. Cautiously, Specs began to stand, and saw that Dutchy was standing almost directly below him. With a wicked smile, he shoved at the snow that had piled on the stone railings, the pile of it landing on Dutchy’s head with a wet whump. Specs took the opportunity to bound down the stairs and take off back up the street.
He could hear Dutchy careening up the sidewalk, boots echoing on the empty street, pristine under its layers of snow and sunlight.
Specs didn’t see the patch of ice before it was too late. The ball of his foot landed and slid forward, and almost before he knew what happened, he was face up on the sidewalk, gasping for air as snow slid into his collar.
It didn’t take long for Dutchy to catch up, laughing as he slid down beside his friend, head tilted back. From his place on the ground, Specs watched the pale expanse of his throat, and the blond strands of hair that fell back over his collar. He found himself smiling, even as he felt his clothing grow damp.
Slowly, both boys caught their breath, gasping as their lungs caught the cold air, burning pleasantly below their breastbones.
"Hey, look." Dutchy stretched out his arm, pointing up. For a moment, Specs just looked at him, scanning his eyes over his friend. After a pause, he let his eyes wander out over Dutchy’s arm, following the other boy’s gaze to a set of gates that blocked the entrance to another apartment building. A garland twisted along the top of the gates, arching up in the middle, where a sprig of a different kind dangled. "Mistletoe."
For a moment, Specs just laid there, before a blush stole across his features. He expected Dutchy to stand, brush the snow from his clothing, maybe offer Specs a hand up. What he didn’t expect was for him to lean closer, settling one hand on Specs’ far side and leaning over him.
"It’s tradition." Specs found himself nodding in agreement, unaware. His mind wandered back to the middle of the night, and the knot of dread that formed in his stomach the way it did every Christmas morning, since the one he woke up alone.
Dutchy was very close now, his breath puffing warm across Specs’ cheek. With every exhale, Specs could feel that knot loosen, slipping free of its normal spot, replaced by a warm glow, like hot cocoa after the snowball fight. Dutchy had paused, inches from Specs, his eyes scanning his best friend’s face.
Without knowing why, Specs leaned up, closing the gap efficiently. Dutchy’s mouth was warm, damp, and wholly welcoming. The kiss moved from slow to something harder, something that made Specs grab at Dutchy’s hair and hold him in place, their tongues sliding over each other, catching on teeth before simmering into a more controlled embrace, Specs’ teeth grazing over Dutchy’s lip one more time before they broke apart.
Both boys smiled in unison, the slow spread of an expression mirrored on them both. This time, Dutchy really did stand, holding out a hand for Specs. He brushed off the other boy’s clothing, not his own. A million words came to mind, but somewhere along the path to Specs' mouth they got stuck, and nothing came out.
Dutchy smiled and took the words right out of his mouth. "Merry Christmas, Specs."