"No way, no how! You are not gettin' me in that water, Jack, and that is FINAL!"
"Jeez Race, calm down wontcha? It's a little jump off the docks is all. Les did it, an' he's just a kid! What are ya, a baby?"
"Shut up, Cowboy, or you'll be soaked today in more ways than one, understand?"
Spot watched the exchange between his friends, eyes narrowing slightly. It was totally normal to see Jack teasing one of the other boys for one thing or another, but it absolutely was not normal for Racetrack to lose his cool. Sure, he'd smack you if you looked at him wrong, but the next moment he'd be punching your shoulder and laughing with you. It wasn't like him to get hung up on something as small as this.
It was mid-July, and the hottest day of the year so far, which was what brought the boys of Manhattan to the Brooklyn docks. Spot had issued an express invitation for them to share his river view, after all, there was nowhere like Brooklyn to take in a swim on a day like this. It had taken less than a minute for the first guy to strip down to his smalls and jump from the pier into the water with a gleeful whoop, after which the rest followed enthusiastically.
All except Race.
When Jack had noticed, and asked him what was going on, Race had mumbled something about "that damned dirty river" and "strange Brooklyn diseases" before going back to agitatedly chewing on his unlit cigar in his shirtsleeves. Spot had noticed his strange mood, but had thought it was just a temporary funk until Jack's repeated needling drew the same result again a little later. Since then, he'd been watching Race, wondering what was up, wishing he could talk to his friend and help him out.
So Race was his friend. So he wanted to help a friend out. So what? Race was a decent guy, funny, the most interesting of all the Manhattan boys. He and Spot had gotten on well from the start. So, it was totally natural that Spot would want to come to his friend's defense. Completely normal.
When Jack had finally left Race alone and gone back to swimming, Spot made his way casually over to him.
"Hey, you alright?"
Race jumped a little at the sound of Spot's voice, and turned to face him. "Y-yeah. I'm fine. What's it to you?"
Spot looked at the other boy. The end of his unlit cigar was a ragged, soggy mess from too much chewing. His hand was tapping out an agitated rhythm on the piling. The sweat was pouring from under his cap, and his shirt was soaked through. He looked anything but fine. Spot shrugged. "Just askin'." He looked over Race again. "Y'know you can just walk into the water over there, if you go back that way and climb down to the shore. You don't have to jump, if you don't want."
"I ain't afraid of a little jump, Spot, Jesus! I just don't wanna swim right now. God, can't a guy just be left alone?"
Spot narrowed his eyes and almost approached Race, not liking the other boy's tone. When he met Race's eyes, though, he saw a kind of embarrassed desperation there that was entirely out of his friend's character, and that he was sure Race would prefer to keep quiet. He backed off, and shrugged again before turning and walking way. "Suit yourself. But you don't look fine to me."
The rest of the afternoon wore on in much the same way, and as the sun began to set and the afternoon turned to evening, the Manhattan boys started trickling back over the bridge to their home territory. Some stayed behind, though, planning to bunk in Brooklyn for the evening in order to get as much time in the water as possible. Jack stayed, and a few of the others, and Race stayed too. Spot was glad.
The moon started rising over the river, full and bright, and the boys took that as their cue to dry off the best they could and head back to the lodging house. They sat around talking and joking for a bit--though Spot noticed that Race remained uncharacteristically withdrawn--but soon adjourned to bed, tired out from their extended swims.
Spot went to his bed, and laid down for a moment, listening to the sounds of the other boys winding down and finally drifting into sleep. He was almost always the last to fall asleep, finding it easier to do so once he knew that everyone was basically where they belonged. Finally, the lodging house was hushed, and Spot began to drift off.
He was awoken a moment later by the squeak of a mattress, followed by bare feet padding over the lodging house floor and out the door. He knew that step and that hushed mutter. That was Race. What was he thinking going out on the streets at this hour, the idiot? Spot sat up, quickly but silently, and threw on a shirt and pants before following his friend out the door.
He was just in time to see where Race was going, and was only slightly surprised when the other boy headed back toward the pier. He watched as Race walked back to where he had been standing earlier, and recommenced chewing on his cigar. Spot walked straight toward him. He had to get to the bottom of this.
"Hey. Race." Race whirled to face Spot again, not unlike he had earlier.
"Come ON, Spot, you have to stop sneakin' up on me like that. A guy gets on edge sometimes, y'know?"
"Yeah, sure, I know. And you've been on edge all day. What the hell is wrong? This ain't like you."
"Spot, it's nothin'. Come on, just let it go, okay?" Race's voice cracked a little as he said it, obviously with nerves. He placed his cigar in his mouth once again, and this time, Spot yanked it out and threw it into the water.
"RACE. STOP IT. You've been worked up all day, and I have no idea why the hell you're so hung up on whatever's eatin' you, but I'm about this close to pushin' you into that water, I'm so fed up with it."
Race's face showed a range of emotions, from anger at seeing his cigar go into the drink, to embarrassment when Spot mentioned his mood earlier, to agitation when Spot mentioned the water. He scratched his head through his cap, looking at the ground, then finally looked up at Spot. "Christ. Okay, Spot, you win. But you can absolutely NOT for ANY reason tell the other guys. You hear me?"
"Alright. Okay, uh, y'see Spot, I-- I can't, uh, I can't swim."
Spot just stared at Race. His eyes wide and confused. It made Race even more agitated.
"Aw Spot, come on, gimme a break, it's not that big of a deal. Come on, stop lookin' at me like that, that's why I didn't want to tell anyone in the first place."
Spot was still staring, but he finally spoke. "That's it? That's all this is? You just don't know how to swim? Damn, you could've just said. Any of us would teach you, Race, you know that. We're pals, ain't we?"
"Sure, but, I mean it's pretty shameful, to grow up here not knowin' how to swim."
"Nah. It's no big deal or nothin'. I don' even care." Spot looked around, out at the water, up at the moon. "But Race, you know, I could teach ya."
"In front of the other guys? No way. I'm not dealing with Jack laughing while I flounder all around like some idiot."
"Naw, I mean right here. Now. I can teach you tonight, come on." Without another word, Spot stripped to his smallclothes there on the pier. Race gulped, and looked away nervously. "Come on, Race, do you want to learn or not? Now's your best chance."
Race looked at Spot, then down at the ground, then back at Spot. His brow crinkled, and then finally relaxed a little. "Ugh. Fine, I guess you're, uh, you're right." He stripped down as well, and Spot smirked a little as he saw how skinny his friend was under his customary layers of clothing.
"Alright," he said, "this is gonna seem sudden, but what you gotta do is just jump in, okay?"
Race looked at him, alarmed, but said nothing. Spot continued. "I'll go first, then you've gotta jump after me. I'll be right down there, you'll be fine."
Race still looked awfully nervous. Spot placed a hand on his shoulder. "Race." His friend looked at him. "You're going to have to trust me." With that, Spot turned and took a little running leap off of the pier, landing in the water with a splash. He popped up a second later, and called to the other boy.
"Come on, Race! Your turn!" Race gulped. He looked around, then down, down at Spot in the water below him. He closed his eyes, ran, and jumped.
Spot saw Race's splash, and saw his friend come up sputtering and flailing, grappling for purchase on the water as though it would offer him a hand to grip. "Listen to me, Race," he yelled. "You've got to relax, okay? Stop that now, just relax." Race wasn't relaxing, if anything he was floundering with more fervor than before. Spot sighed. It just wouldn't do.
He swam up behind Race and grabbed him around the middle from behind, treading water to keep their heads above. Race calmed almost instantly, and when he had a moment to catch his breath, he hissed at Spot. "Jesus, Spot, I nearly died there! I thought I was supposed to trust you or somethin'!"
"Hey, I was here, wasn't I? You're fine. Now come on, I'm teaching you to swim." Race sighed and nodded.
For the next thirty minutes, Spot helped Race through the basics. He made him hold his breath and allow himself to sit still in the water, to show him he wouldn't sink. He helped him learn to float on his back, then showed him a few simple strokes to move around. Race learned fairly quickly, and when Spot was satisfied that he knew enough that the other guys would never guess he hadn't known, he said, "Bet you can't beat me back to the ladder!" They both took off swimming fast toward the ladder that led back up onto the pier.
Spot reached it first, of course, but was pleased to see that Race was close on his heels. When they were both back out of the water, Spot turned to Race. "Not bad. What do you say we finish it off with one last jump, then?"
Race nodded. "Bet I'll make it in before you!" He took off before Spot, and splashed into the water ahead of his friend. They both popped up laughing.
They gathered their dry clothes and went to lay on the shore in an attempt to dry off a bit before heading back to the lodging house. It was hard for anything to dry in the humid summer night, but anything was better than having to go to bed dripping wet. They lay there, chatting about this and that, until Spot finally propped himself up on an elbow and looked at Race to ask him a question that had been bothering him all evening.
"So Race, there's one thing I don't get. If you couldn't swim, why'd you come over today? It's not like everyone did. I mean, you could've stayed back, and nobody would've asked or known. Seems like that woulda been a lot easier."
Race got very quiet when Spot said that, and looked down at the pebbles beneath them, playing with them a little before letting them fall. "I, uh, I--" He trailed off, and muttered something under his breath that Spot didn't quite catch.
"What? I didn't hear ya."
"I--I wanted to see you. That's all." Race looked intently at the pebbles, pushing them around with a fingertip.
Spot froze. What did that even mean? Why was he wondering what that meant, weren't they friends? Wasn't that just normal? Why was this bothering him so much? He couldn't answer any of those questions, but he had to look Race in the eye. He had to try to figure out what his friend meant by that. He reached toward Race and pulled his chin up, but Race kept his eyes pointed down.
"Look at me, Race. God, LOOK at me." Race finally lifted his brown eyes to Spot's blue ones. He looked apprehensive, guilty, ashamed, and yes, something else too. Something else that Spot couldn't place.
He looked exactly like Spot had felt every time he had looked at Race today. Hell, every time he had looked at him since they'd been friends. He saw his own feelings reflected in Race's eyes, and as frightening as it was, he finally had to admit that it wasn't just friendship he was feeling. As appalling as that idea was, he had to admit it. Seeing the same feelings in Race's eyes took it beyond feeling wrong and scary, to a place where it almost felt exciting. But now, hell, he didn't know what to say, what to do, to show Race that it was okay. He didn't want to be a sissy about it. So he pushed Race's face away, causing his friend to fall flat on his back against the pebbles. He put one hand on either side of Race's head and looked straight down at him.
Race had his eyes squeezed shut, and his hands up by his face, as though trying to fend off an imminent blow. What was he, stupid? As though Spot would hit him at a moment like this. Spot grabbed Race's hands, frustrated, and pinned them beneath his own on either side of the other boy's head. Race cringed further at that, as though he was even more sure that a soaking was coming his way. God, didn't he get it yet? Spot wasn't trying to hit him, he was trying to--to what? Oh hell, he'd just have to do it, wouldn't he?
Spot leaned slowly down to Race's face, and unsure of how to go about it, brushed his lips against Race's cheek. The cringe disappeared then, and Race looked at Spot with wide eyes, his lips quirking up at one side to reveal his crooked grin.
"What?" he said, "you too? But-" He was silenced by Spot's mouth on his.
Spot kissed roughly, pressing none too gently, and biting by accident as well as on purpose. Race didn't care though, didn't know what to do either except to meet Spot's enthusiasm with equal fervor. He kissed back, his hands tangled in Spot's hair, and moaned a little when Spot's tongue was in his mouth for the first time. He let out a rough breath when Spot's mouth left his to trail kisses down his cheek, to his jawbone, down to his neck, where he nipped a little and drew out Race's moan again. His knees straddled Race now, and he sat back on his heels, urging Race up to a sitting position.
They looked at each other and caught their breath a little, both looking bewildered and unsure what to do with themselves. Spot spoke first.
"So, uh, what's this mean? What the hell is this anyway?" He smiled a little as he said it, just to show Race he didn't mean it as harshly as it sounded. Race put a rough, stained hand on Spot's neck, and pulled him into a short, sweet kiss that he broke quickly.
"I don't know. I have no damned clue. But, I do know this is what I want. To be with you. Like this, whatever the hell it is." Spot nodded.
"Yeah, me too." He kissed Race again, harder and more lingering this time. Maybe in the morning they'd have to face this, face each other in the real world, figure out what "this" was and what it meant. But for now, with the moon riding high over Brooklyn on a hot July night, all that mattered was them.