Disclaimer: Most of the characters in this story are the property of Disney and are only used for fan related purposes. Any original characters featured are the intellectual property of their creators.
Warnings: This story has a hard-T rating. It will be light at times, it will be dark at times, there will be liberal mentions of steel blades and what they can do if in the wrong pair of hands, as well as scenes where that unfortunately happens. Rip's obsession with his dead sister (see: A Virgin's Touch) borders on overly creepy and definitely incestuous at times, and the attentions he lavishes on Jessa are most definitely non-consensual (each chapter will have its own trigger warnings, just in case). Spindle, it must be said, is just off her rocker, but I have to say that I like her that way.
And now, if I haven't scared you off yet, I present—
Obsession: Cuts like a Knife
May 26, 1895
Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap…
Gayle O'Connor's smile wavered but remained in place. The girl's scowl was distasteful, she thought. The constant tapping was simply unnerving. Not to mention the incessant gum-chewing, either. That made her cringe, but she tried not to let it show, if only for Jessa's sake.
"I'm sure she'll be out in but a moment," she said, her thick Irish brogue noticeable for her discomfort. Mrs. O'Connor tucked a wispy strand of faint grey hair behind her ear before nodding. "If you'll just excuse me, I'll go and see what's keeping my girl."
Scooping up her skirt in her wrinkled hands, she bustled away from the kitchen, down the narrow hall and towards the door that led to Jessa's cramped quarters. She knocked softly. "Jessa, a leanbh, there's someone out here waiting for you."
The reply was muffled, nearly out of breath—
"I'll be right out, ma'am."
Or maybe it was mum. When she was nervous, her accent could be just as strong as her adopted grandmother's.
And if it wasn't for how worried she was about this morning, or how frantic to hear that Spindle was already there, the young girl might have reminded Mrs. O'Connor that she preferred to be called simply Jess; Jessa had always been too frilly for her. But she was worried and still wearing only her chemise so, rather than quibble over her Christian name, she allowed one quick response before reaching out and grabbing the fine black skirt folded at the foot of her bed.
She had to look her best.
The day had come when Spindle Scott, the head of the newsgirls in their town of Far Rockaway—a well-known Irish neighborhood on the far side of Queens—had finally invited her to sell newspapers togeter. As all the girls knew, you were either accepted when Spindle asked you to be her selling partner or that was the last time you dared walk the Far Rockaway streets with a paper in your hand.
For a heartbeat Jess wondered if the launderer two blocks over was still taking on new girls before shaking her head and pulling on her black skirt.
"Almost done," she murmured, her own voice a blend of a brogue and the powerful New York accent when in control; otherwise she suspected she sounded more like one of the faerie folk.
She grabbed the beige blouse Mrs. O'Connor had left hanging over the bed, hurried fingers finding it hard to do up the buttons properly. Even though her guardians were not well-off themselves, Mrs. O'Connor was very deft with a needle. Ever since the O'Connors had taken her in when she was little more than a child, Jess had never gone around looking as if she was in need.
Once she was dressed, Jess looked herself over once in the mirror and sighed. In the reflection she saw a slim girl, one who looked older than her thirteen years for all the hardship she suffered at an early age: losing her mother, her father and her home in Ireland all within one short year. With her sandy curls falling down past her shoulders, a mischievous glint in her cat-like eyes and a dusting of freckles over her pale nose, she was as Irish as they come which, thankfully, wasn't so noticeable in Far Rockaway.
A delicate silver chain poked out from beneath her neckline, lying crooked against her collarbone. A relic from her past life, it had once belonged to her dead mother. It was all she had left from her first family and she was always afraid of losing it—or worse, having it stolen. As friendly as many of the Rockaway girls were, silver was silver and dollars were dollars.
Jess tucked her necklace under her chemise, careful to keep it hidden. She then patted the front of her blouse, pleased to see there weren't any obvious bulges, and ruffled her curls one final time, trying to tame them.
Ah, well. She was as ready as she was ever going to get.
Pausing only to grab the dime off of her dresser, she scurried out into the front room and stopped, nearly falling over as she dodged Mr. O'Connor's footstool. There was a girl, tall and thin—maybe a few years older than her thirteen—standing in the kitchen. She was extremely restless, twirling the ends of her mud-brown ponytail around one finger, glowering slightly as she forever tap-tap-tapped her foot.
Jess recognized her sharp profile at once: it was Snappa Barrow, one of Spindle's top girls. Her name had once been Snapper, courtesy of her habit of popping and snapping away at her Tutti-Frutti chewing gum whenever she was awake, but over the years it had faded into a nickname of a nickname and Snappa refused to answer unless that a was there.
She didn't know what to think about this. On one hand it was good that she hadn't kept Spindle waiting, but on the other—
"Snappa? A fair mornin' to you but… wasn't Spindle supposed to meet me?" she asked, trying not to sound so nervous and failing miserably. "We're selling together, aren't we?"
It was common knowledge that Spindle always sold alone, unless she was looking over a new girl, weighing her over to see if she was worthy to sell in her territory. That was why Jess was waiting for Spindle. Except...
Jess had the sudden, terrible thought that maybe, just maybe Spindle had decided that Jess wasn't even worth the test. After all, she was three years younger than Spindle and, unlike most of the other girls who lodged in the Queens' Home for Girls, actually had a place to call home. Most of Spindle's gang of newsgirls resented the fact that she didn't have to live in the lodging house or worry about sleeping on the street or going hungry if she didn't sell as many papers as she should.
Snappa unwound the knotted ends of her hair from her finger, letting out an obnoxious snap of her chewing gum, before standing up from her slouch. Her lips curved upwards slightly but what it was that amused her, Jess couldn't say. She already felt like she was failing.
"Oh, I wouldn't worry about her just yet. Spindle had errands of her own and passed you off to me," Snappa said with a wrinkle to her pug nose. "She said she'd meet you down at the distribution center." Snap. Pop. "You ready?"
"Aye—I mean… I am," Jess answered and, glancing over her shoulder, saw Mrs. O'Connor hovering in the hall. "I'll be leaving now then. Tell the mister I hope he has a nice time at work today," she added, the words slipping out before she had even thought of saying them. A quick glance back at Snappa revealed she hadn't seemed to notice. Jess breathed a silent sigh of relief.
Mr. O'Connor worked as a trolley conductor for the Steinway Railway Company. Though he was getting on in years, his wages ensured that the couple had enough to afford a two bedroom apartment in Queens—one room for the married pair to share and one for Jess so she had some semblance of privacy in the small apartment. The O'Connors had had no children of their own together and, though they were both well into their sixties, they had long ago come to think of Jess as their child and treated her as such. In return, Jess thought of them as the parents she had lost—though, she reminded herself, it wouldn't serve to flaunt that fact in front of an orphaned girl of the streets.
Mrs. O'Connor came over and gave Jess a quick kiss on the cheek before murmuring a silent prayer over her head just like she did every morning. No matter how many times she was told that there was no need for her to sell papers to make rent, Jess always insisted so that there would be a few extra cents a week.
"You take care, my girl. I expect you home for lunch," she told her ward. "It'll be stew."
Jess had to suppress a laugh; it was better than the sudden heat of embarrassment that licked at her cheek where Mrs. O'Connor's lips had just been. Of course it was stew. In the O'Connors apartment, it was always Irish stew.
"Yes, ma'am," she said and, avoiding Snappa's slight smirk, led the older girl to the front door.
As she watched the two girls leave, Gayle O'Connor couldn't help but think back to the day they had met young Jessa Rhian. It had been on the steamer ship that brought Gayle and Seamus to the new world and the girl had been a wee child then, six years old at the time, and her only family, her father, had been found dead in the cramped undersides of the ship. The captain ensured that the girl would go straight to the orphanage once they docked at Ellis Island but Mrs. O'Connor felt pity for the tear-streaked child. She was a Sligo girl, after all, and Mrs. O'Connor never lost her Irish pride.
After convincing her husband that it would be the best thing to do, Gayle had offered to take young Jessa with them when they set off to find a home in New York. She had lived with them since then, for over seven years now. And, as Mrs. O'Connor pulled the chuck meat out of the icebox in order to start the stew,she couldn't imagine life any other way.
"Wait here," Snappa instructed. Pop. "Spindle will meet you at the gates."
Jess nodded. She would have answered the older girl but, before she had even thought to answer with a yes instead of an aye, Snappa had walked off. Only the pierce of her final snap hung in the air, keeping Jess company on the opposite side of the distribution center's gates.
The gates were open and, glancing in, she could see there was already a line forming to snatch up the morning's New York Sun. She peered back behind her—no sign of Spindle just yet—and looked over at the line again. Jess was just wondering if she would have enough time to buy her newspapers and come back to this spot before Spindle arrived when she caught sight of a familiar figure waving her over from the edge of the walkway.
Grace Delaney was a tiny girl, nearly half a head shorter than Jess, who earned her nickname for her ability to float gracefully through the crowd; she could run so fleetly that it seemed like her usually bare feet never touched the cobbles. She had ratty blonde hair that seemed darker when she went weeks without washing it and dark blue eyes that raged like a storm when she was cross, but she had a kind heart and Jess felt most of her nerves melt away when she saw Grace smiling at her.
One more peek to determine that Spindle still wasn't there and Jess quickly slipped inside the gates. She knew that if there was one other person who understood her desire to be accepted into Spindle's gang it was Grace. Especially since it was Grace's word that even had Spindle entertaining the idea at all.
As odd a friendship as it was, the two girls had known each other for years: Grace had been living at the Girls' Home since she was eight and had always seemed to sell her papers on the corner street near the O'Connors' apartment. Jess had bought one from her every day before taking up the banner herself—Grace was the first newsgirl she had ever seen, given that most newsies she knew were the dirty boys she purposely avoided.
It was Grace who introduced her to selling papers, not too long ago and only because Jess had pleaded with her for ages to. When the weather was fair and Grace not begging for pennies and scraps, the pair would sell on that same street corner. It wasn't unusual for Grace to spend the night in Jess's small room when the headlines were bad and the sales poor.
In fact, the O'Connors had offered the girl a place to stay too many times to count but Grace had lived on the streets too long to be comfortable in a real home. Besides, she enjoyed her freedom too much to and, at times, liked to tease Jess about all the rules they created for her.
As she headed towards Grace, Jess saw that the other girl wasn't alone.
Two girls, tall and thick and standing like trees beside the diminutive Grace, each gave Jess a once-over as she approached. They were both fair-skinned with freckles, wavy brown hair and dark eyes. At first glance they could be twins, they looked so similar, but Rumor and Lucy—who preferred to be called Luce—swore they weren't even related.
"Mornin', girls," she greeted them, purposely lapsing into a tone more New York than brogue. Far Rockaway was an Irish town but it was always a safer bet to appear as Native as possible. "Nice day to be sellin' papers."
Rumor and Luce exchanged a look before they both gave Jess tight-lipped smiles. But neither of them said a word to her and if she hadn't been so used to it, it might have stung.
She liked to think that Grace's pals were her friends too, but she knew better. They could be friendly at times… but they weren't actually friends. Rumor thought all of the Far Rockaway newsgirls should stay at the Girls' Home, and Luce couldn't understand why Jess insisted on selling newspapers and taking customers when she didn't need it the same way the others did. But Grace always backed up Jess, so Rumor and Luce—and some of the other girls—were nice enough.
Grace reached out and took Jess by the wrists. "Today's the day. You excited?"
"I'm a wee bit wary," she admitted. "I don't want to do anything to upset my chances."
Rumor murmured something to Luce and the other girl laughed.
Jess's brow wrinkled. "Was it something I said?" she asked Grace.
"I wouldn't listen to Rumor," Grace began before Luce cut in.
"Rumor just said you'd improve your chances if you rolled your skirt up a bit at the waist. Show a little ankle. Get the fellas eatin' outta your hand, sell the papes, and show Spindle you got what it takes to make it in Far Rockaway."
Her voice was high and breathy, and, for those who didn't know the pair at all, one of the only ways to tell the two apart. Luce had a tendency to giggle as she spoke.
"You…" Jess felt her cheeks heat up as she understood what Luce was saying. She looked from Luce to Grace to Rumor before asking, "It'll help?"
Rumor shrugged, though her dark brown eyes sparkled mischievously. "Can't hurt."
As Jess's fingers fumbled to lift the hem up off of the ground by an inch or two, Grace clicked her tongue. While Rumor and Luce were right—it wouldn't hurt sales surely—she wasn't so certain that Spindle would approve. Their volatile leader was just that: volatile. On any given initiation, none of the girls knew what she was looking for. Sometimes it was selling skills, sometimes it was obedience, and sometimes it was whether or not Spindle felt threatened by anyone else.
At least, Grace thought to herself, there was thing you could say about Jess Rhian. She was quite possibly the least threatening creature in all of Queens.
"How's this?" Jess asked.
It wasn't that big of a change, but Luce said, "Looks good, honey. Nice shoes. Give me a good knife and we can make those heels dangerous."
Jess glanced at the block edge of her shoe and then looked at the pointed heels Luce had on under her much shorter skirt (you could see skin, she thought scandalously, no stockings!). She couldn't understand what exactly Luce meant this time but, before she could ask, a new voice broke in—
"Here you are. I thought I said I'd meet you outside of the gates."
Jess's grin slipped right off of her face as she spun around anxiously; if her heels had been any less dependable, she would've stumbled and fallen over. She knew that voice.
A petite girl stood behind her, a girl with long flame-red hair and dark green eyes narrowed over at Jess in particular. While she was short—but not so short as Grace—and rail-thin, she exuded only confidence despite her size. She walked with power in her every stride, reveling in how all conversations had stopped as she passed.
Rumor poked Luce in the side, but not before awarding Spindle with a respectful nod. "C'mon," she said quickly, "let's go get our papes before they all sell out."
Luce bobbed her head in agreement. "Nice sellin', Spindle." Then, almost as an afterthought, she breathed, "You, too, Jess."
Grace opened her mouth to say something but stopped when Rumor reached out and grabbed her by the elbow. She grinned impishly at Jess—whose eyes begged her to stay—and waved at the two girls as Rumor led her towards the line. Quick as that, the leader and the new girl were left alone together.
"Spindle, I'm so sorry," Jess apologized. Spindle was as known for her temper as her sharp blade and Jess was wise enough not to want to tangle with either. "I should've been waiting where you said."
"Yeah, ya shoulda." But there wasn't much bite to her words, and they were followed by a wide yawn. Spindle had the appearance of one who didn't get much sleep the night before. Her hair was flat, her eyes were puffy and her yellow blouse, missing the top two buttons as it was, was buttoned wrong. "Ready to go?"
"I just have to go and buy my papes," Jess told her, referring to the newspapers with the slang the other newsies used, "and then I'm set."
"Then what are ya waitin' for?"
Nothing, that's what. Jess could feel Spindle's disapproval like a dark cloud overhead and, eager to please if only to finally claim a respected spot in the Far Rockaway scheme, she bowed her head obediently.
"Right away," she said and started for the same path the others had just taken… until she heard a rich, smooth masculine voice call out from not far behind her. For some reason, it made her stop dead in her tracks—
"Wait, Spindle. Aren't you going to introduce me to your friend here? It would be polite, no?"
—and slowly Jess turned because, suddenly, it seemed even more important to find out who had a voice like that.
And there he was, a tall, handsome boy of around sixteen, seventeen tops. He walked over to Spindle, more of a cunning swagger really; there was a sizeable stack of papers already tucked underneath his arm. With his sculpted features, olive-colored skin, jet black hair and icy, icy blue eyes, he was absolutely gorgeous and, as Jess could tell just by the way he smiled at her, he knew it, too.
Those eyes were locked on her, piercing her, keeping her frozen on her step. Jess's heart started to pound and, under the weight of his stare, she shivered.
Spindle frowned for a moment before reassuming a disinterested expression. "I don't see why. She's just another one of the girls who wants to sell in my territory."
"She has a name?"
"Of course she does." Spindle's snap of an answer showed she was losing patience at the direction of this conversation. "It's Jess. Jess, this is Rip… Rip Divenize… and he's mine." She patted the sleeve of his faded blue shirt possessively as she explained, "He just moved to Queens from Harlem so he could be closer to me. You get it?"
"I… um, yes. It's nice to meet you," trilled Jess nervously. No one had ever looked at her that way before and she wasn't sure she liked it. And what made it worse was that he still wasn't looking away. Trying not to look as if she was doing so, she moved her hand behind her and gave the fold of her skirt a downwards tug.
Rip slipped his arm out from under Spindle's touch and stepped forward to take Jess's hand; he must've caught her gesture because he made sure to take the one she had hidden behind her back. His fingers were callused and rough but his palm was warm and his grip tighter than a crab's pinch.
"Ah, but the pleasure is all mine, I'm sure," he drawled. His voice was low and hoarse and contained the hint of an accent that she couldn't quite place.
Jess blushed from the roots of her hair down to her shoes at his forward manner. In an effort to pretend she wasn't as uncomfortable as she was, she sought out Spindle. Spindle's expression was blank, unreadable, and Jess just hoped that was a good thing. She had heard rumors about what Spindle was like when she was angry and, well, at least she didn't look angry.
She cleared her throat when it became obvious that Spindle wasn't interested in helping her out of this situation. "Well, um, I think I should go get my papers now. I'll just—" And here she managed to slip her hand out of his, Rip laughing as she did so before swaggering back to the redhead's side, "—I'll just be right back."
Spindle gave her a curt nod and let her lips split into a scowl only when she saw that Jess had finally scampered over to the line. She took in a deep breath and then, despite the fact that others were still in earshot, she turned to face Rip with fire in her eyes.
"Rip, damn it, just what do you think you were playin' at?" she hissed through gritted teeth. She just couldn't wrap her head around the fact that he had had the nerve to hit on one of her girls—and a younger girl, no less—while she was standing right there. He was her fella!
But Rip shrugged and turned his charming smile towards Spindle; his eyes, though, never left Jess as she stood on line, her face turned away from him. Once or twice he saw her mousy gaze throw a worried glance back at him and deep down, like a big, fat alley cat, he purred in pleasure.
To Spindle, though, he just said: "What? I'm trying to make some friends. When I came to live here, you said that I should make some friends."
Spindle scowl deepened and the expression brought out the depths of her eyes, vivid against her pale skin. "Friends sure, but I don't remember tellin' you to get yourself a girl, too. I thought that was me." She paused and, when she spoke again, her voice was low. Guttural. "It's always been me."
Rip reached over and pecked her cheek. "Ah, but don't you worry, pet, you know you're my one and only," he said and reached one of his hands up to pat her hair soothingly. When she leaned into his hand, he smiled. Wrapped around his finger like always.
Seeing it was time to remind her of that fact, Rip gently pulled away from her, silently gloating over the growl deep in her throat. "Not here… not now. I promised some of the fellas I'd walk around with them today, get a feel for the streets. Come find me later, though? I'll be waiting for you," he added, lowering his voice so that only she could hear him.
Spindle longed to tell him no, that she couldn't bear to be separated from him again after so long apart, but she couldn't. She glanced back at the distribution window and nodded to herself. She had her own plans after all and Jess was already returning with the tiny stack of papers she'd purchased. The younger girl seemed to be dragging her heels, taking her time as she headed back towards where Spindle and Rip were standing together, apart from the hustling, bustling morning crowd surrounding them.
Good, thought Spindle. It always served to make sure that the other girls knew their place. Fear, worries, nerves… those were the appropriate responses—and staying far away from Rip Divenize, too. Even better.
"If you're waiting for me, then I'll be there," Spindle told him, turning back and giving Rip the small smile that she reserved only for him. But, because this was Spindle, she reached out and poked him in the shoulder before he could move any further away. "Oh," she said silkily, "one more thing?"
Rip froze, tensing under the point of her finger. Swallowing an angry retort, he said simply, "Anything for you."
Her smile was wicked and sharp, like the curve of her blade. "Don't you ever call me pet again."
It was a good thing Rip still had his back to her. Even a hardened girl like Spindle might've quailed at the dark expression that flickered across his handsome features. "È meglio di altri," he murmured.
"What was that?"
"As you wish, Spindle."
È meglio di altri - It's better than others (other names)
Author's Note: I can't really explain what I'm doing. I wrote the first version of Cuts Like a Knife over the course of a month nearly eleven years ago. I was on the high of discovering both Newsies and fan fiction and I jumped in head first. I know now that I fell into every single cliche there was, but the story still holds a very special place in my heart.
However, when I launched the rewrite back in 2006 (seven years ago now!), I had wanted to get rid of the New Yawk accent that littered the original, as well as try to stick to the historical accuracy that was lacking in the first version. A lot more research went into it and, following the heels of A Virgin's Touch (the story written in 2006 that detailed Luke "Rip" Divenize's life before CLAK), I felt like I was giving the characters both depth and purpose.
Now, though, I feel that there's more to be done. I'm in the finishing stages of two original novels and in preparation of a third one - a historical novel this time - I thought I'd revisit this old story. Last summer I had started a simple rewrite just for me but, after re-reading those first few scenes, I fell in love with it all all over again. And, thus, the idea for this second revisal hit me.
So, yes. There will be new characters, new scenes, and a different approach to my villains and my heroes. I don't want them to be bad because I say so, but because they are bad, and vice versa. I want it to be real, and I want it to feel real to the readers. And, more than anything, I want to introduce new readers/new Newsies fans to these characters that have been so important to me for more than a decade. Call it nostalgia if you will, or a reluctance to let them go, but I'm going to pour my heart and soul into this thing and all I ask is that you enjoy it!
Of course, reviews, feedback and comments are always appreciated. Let me know what you think. As an author, I crave response.
Thank you so much!
– stress, 03.03.13