Disclaimer: The characters in this story are the property of Disney and their likenesses are only used for fan related purposes. Any original characters featured are the intellectual property of their creators.
Fireflies in the Morning
It was a bum headline on an idle morning when Jack Kelly wasn't feeling anywhere near his best. Still, he improved the banner story that seemed the most likely, giving it his own spin even if it meant tweaking the truth here or there and, despite David's muffled tuts and ardent attempts to sell his papers on the strength of the weak headline alone, the two selling partners managed to get through most of their stack of a hundred by the time the noon bell chimed.
David knew better than to mention lunch though he was pretty darn sure he heard a grumbling coming from Jack's stomach when they were selling that last paper to the gentleman in the stovepipe hat. It was a hot day, muggy, the dregs of a summer that didn't want to give up its hold, and he felt the sweat welling up on the back of his neck. Sticky. Disgusting.
As Jack fiddled with the ends of his bandana, glancing around in search of some sucker to pawn these last few papes onto, David took the second to pause and wipe the sweat away with the handkerchief he took to carrying in his trouser pocket. Then, stuffing the damp cloth back where it belonged, he happened to look up in time to notice the figure all in white heading purposefully straight for them.
"Jack," David said, nudging him in the side to sway his friend's attention a different way. "I think someone's looking for you."
Jack froze, his eyes suddenly wide and alert rather than aimlessly searching about and, yes, still a bit bloodshot from half a night's sleep outside of the Sarah's window. His first instinct was that Emma, after ditching him last night, had tracked him down and found him just outside of Newsies Square. Following the point of David's extended finger a bit desperately, he could make out the wild tumble of curls and the fierce, determined expression on the face of the girl stalking right towards him and recognized Emma's friend at once.
But not Emma. Where was his sister?
That, it seemed, was the exact question on Stress's mind—
"Where's Emma?" she demanded, stumbling a little as she walked, her hand pressed to her side as if holding in a stitch. "What have ya done with her?"
The accusation in her raspy tone had Jack turned to glance behind his shoulder out of habit if only to make sure that she really was talking to him. There was no one there—well, no, of course there were plenty of people there since it was midday in New York City but no one who counted—and he spun back in time to find the incensed Irish girl staring daggers up at him.
He would be lying if he said it didn't spook him just a little. Regardless, courtesy of another never-say-die habit, his eyebrows rose for the Heavens in a bid to make him look as angelic and as innocent as possible. "Who, me?"
Stress wasn't buying that bit. "Aye, and who else was she supposed to be meetin' last night?"
"Beats me." Jack shrugged, giving up the ghost; he couldn't try to charm this girl, even if she was apt to falling for it. The memory of Sarah from that very morning returned him back to earth and, as a result, he made a point to look past Stress rather than right at her. Then he thought of Emma and how she never showed. His voice turned sour and he knew that David wouldn't have any bad news for his sister regarding Jack's wandering eyes after all. Sniffing, he said, "Must've been someone else, 'cause I waited 'til well after ten and there was never any sign of her."
His eyes clouded over, a thick strand of his sandy brown hair falling into his face. "She stood me up," he said bitterly.
"She stood you up?" repeated Stress uncertainly.
There was a hesitance in the way she spoke, almost as if she were unfamiliar with the phrase, that Jack picked up on.
"Yeah. Stood up. That's English for I spent half the night waitin' for her and she never showed."
Jack didn't bother turning to look over at David. He didn't have to. Jack heard the question in his name. "Not now, Davey."
"But if she didn't meet you, then why didn't she—I mean, where..."
"Where..." echoed Jack until the meaning of Stress's words made their way to his weary brain. "Where what?" Lunging out, he grabbed Stress by the edge of her sheet, hoping he had got her by the arm. "Did somethin' happen to Emma? Do you know where my sister is?"
Stress was taken aback by his sudden movement—but not too surprised that she didn't react. Jerking away as quickly as she could, wheezing painfully as she did, she flopped and pulled and fought like a dying fish wriggling on a hook. She was just as pitiful, her attempts just as in vain and she realized it when all Jack did was tighten his grip to make sure she didn't hurt herself and wait expectantly for her answer.
She went limp after a few tense seconds but the fire wasn't entirely gone from her spirit and she spat out loud, "You let go of me, Cowboy!"
There was something about the way she said his name—or, rather, the way she called him by his nickname—that made him feel as if he'd done something wrong, though he'd be damned if he knew what that was. Glancing down, he wanted to get a better look at her and very quickly regretted it. The way her eyes were glazed, the pale, pale cheeks, the dry, cracked lips... the pleading inherent in every twitch, every gasp that begged him to set her free while she still had the chance to do something about it.
More than before, Jack refused to let go of Stress no matter how fiercely she stared back at him or how red in the face she became. He couldn't. He had the feeling that, if he did let go, she would barely enough strength to regain her footing, let alone stand. How had she made it all the way as it was? Like that?
He tried to make his voice calmer, more soothing, less demanding. "Come with me—with us," Jack amended quickly when the girl shook in... well, it had to be fright because what else could it be this time of day at the end of summer? "You come with me and Dave here, sit down, get out of the sun. Then you can tell me all about Emma. Where she's been, why I'm still waitin' for her... how's that sound? Sounds good, right, Davey?"
Jack shouldn't have looked over at David. These last few weeks, he hadn't given the Jacobs boy enough credit. Because he had a home and a family and an honest-to-goodness education Jack just assumed that David didn't know what it was like to live on the New York streets like many of the other newsboys: always scrapping for dinner and dough, with a damp, smelly bunk to call home if you were lucky.
But then... then David gets one look at the girl—that's all it takes when you've lived... really lived in a slum before—and he knew. It was like that time a couple of weeks back when they stumbled upon a starving, mangy pup scrounging in the ash barrels in some dead-end back alleyway. Jack wanted to get a nickel's worth of meat from the butcher's and David agreed, but there was a knowing look in his blue eyes that said he knew that it wouldn't be enough. And when they got back to the alley to find the pup's stiffening form, David shook his head and made sure to help Jack get rid of it. But he never lost that look, the whole time, not even when he offered Jack a couple of pennies to make up for the wasted meat.
He was looking at Stress like that now.
David gulped and tried to hide the truth he could so plainly see. "I can go and get some water or... or a lemonade," he offered.
"I can't," said Stress, and maybe she regained some of her energy, or maybe Jack was paying more attention to David now... either way, she pulled her arm and to everyone's surprise, she broke free of Jack's grip. "I have to... I have to get back to Bottle Alley."
She managed to take one step, one ungainly step before the world slipped right out from under her feet and, before anyone knew it, she was falling down. She landed hard on the ground, falling on her hands and her knees before rolling onto her side. She gasped, but there was still too much pride in her to cry.
"It's too far," Jack told her stubbornly, hurriedly kneeling down beside her. That was exactly what he thought would happen if he let go. "Now let me help you."
She laughed, a quiet sort of sound that might've been her clearing her throat if it wasn't for the way her dim eyes seemed to brighten all of a sudden. "Aye and you two are more alike than even you know." She lowered her head, staring down at the way her fingers curved around the cobblestones on the ground. She sighed. "Emma was always tryin' to help me, too. She never knew that I was a goner long before I met her."
"Don't talk like that. Here, Dave, take these." Jack stood up and handed David the rest of his papers then, once his hands were free, he bent over and scooped Stress up in his arms as easily as if she were a sack of potatoes. And even a sack of potatoes had to weigh more than this girl, he thought with a pang.
Stress wiggled in his hold; that was all the fight she had left. "Put me down," she protested weakly.
Jack ignored her. Glancing back over at David, he told him, "I'm gonna bring her back to Duane Street. Kloppman's there, he'll know what to do."
"And then what?" asked David.
"And then I'm gonna go find my sister."
"I'll come with you."
David knew almost as soon as half the words were out of his mouth what Jack was going to say. He wasn't disappointed.
Jack shook his head. "No, no... you go back home, Dave."
He'd never learned how to play poker without getting rolled by Kid Blink or even Racetrack and the reason for that was simple: David Jacobs' face was like an open book, you could read every thought, every emotion. And the pity he felt for Stress was so obvious, from his frown to the way his bright blue eyes seemed to lose their shine. Still, there was an eagerness—
"I want to help."
"Yeah, I know. And the best way to help me right now is to head back to your place and let your sister know that everything is fine. And it ain't a lie," Jack added quickly before David could argue, "'cause everything's gonna be fine. So, go on. Go."
With a jerk of his shoulders and another heft of the girl in his arms, Jack tightened his hold so that she wouldn't fall. David's expression was obvious: he thought Jack was fooling himself. He let him.
"Okay, Jack. If you need me, you know where I'll be then. If... if you're sure."
"I'm sure. Thanks, Davey." Despite everything that had happened since last night, Jack still managed to work up one hell of a cocky grin. "You know what? If all goes well, you tell Sarah I'll be joinin' you for supper tonight."
This time David just nodded as Jack started off towards Duane Street, but deep down he knew without any doubt that there would still be only five for dinner that night.
As superintendent of the Newsboys' Lodging House, Alfred Kloppman thought he was rather used to the strange things the boys thought they could get away with bringing back to the House.
He could never forget the time Bumlets came back from a night out at Tibby's, carrying what looked like a single blade from a ceiling fan with him. Or what about the jar of fancy hair goop Race insisted on bringing in with him that nearly caught fire when the poor boy lit a cigar too close? Then there was that stray cat of Mush's that caused all that trouble the time it got into the attic and yowled for two days straight before Kloppman found out and finally figured a way to let it out back again...
However, not even Fluffy was as strange as seeing Jack Kelly walk into the front lobby, a slumbering girl held lightly in his arms.
His ledger shut with a snap before Kloppman removed his glasses, rubbed each lens once and then set he frames back on his nose. No luck. The girl was still there. Kloppman raised his eyebrows. "Cowboy?"
Jack met Kloppman's questioning gaze and then, because those dark eyes seemed to know so much, he looked away. He looked down, finding refuge in checking on Stress.
Her eyes were closed. She was sleeping, and the only reason Jack still knew she was alive was because of the coughs. Terrible things they were, causing her to buck then stiffen as he carried her, moaning softly when they were done as sleep reclaimed her. It only happened twice during the quick walk back to Duane Street but the first time the coughs started spooked Jack so bad he nearly dropped her. The second time he was prepared, but that didn't mean he wasn't spooked.
He rearranged her in his arms—fast asleep, she weighed him down more than when he started towards Duane Street—and dared a peek up at Kloppman. The old man was still waiting. It was amazing how Jack was able to effect something close to a shrug without dropping Stress. "She needs help, Kloppy."
Kloppman thought about it for a second. He knew it was in express defiance of the Children's Aid Society's rules to do what he was about to do but, well, that wasn't going to stop him from doing it, was it? He stepped around the front of his desk. "Fifth floor," he said decisively, already moving towards the stairs, "private beds up there. Follow me."
Now, Alfred Kloppman was a veteran of the Civil War all those years again where a man learned enough about medicine to make sure he got out of the fight in as whole of a piece as he could. There were rumors that there was a peg leg under one of his trouser pants, or that he was missing most of the toes on his right foot but when one of the newsies had a busted arm or a broken nose or a vicious stab wound that they touted as merely a cut, there was only one man to go to and for two reasons. One, because Kloppman was good and he was fair and he didn't charge like all the rest of the doctors in town. And two, because Kloppman had been working with the Manhattan newsboys for so long that he knew better than to ask questions.
But the thing was this: just because Kloppman didn't ask questions, that didn't mean the boys weren't compelled to explain.
They were just turning off the fourth floor landing when Jack found the words rushing out: "I had to bring her here. She's a Bottle Alley girl—"
"One of Cookie's?"
"Yeah. I couldn't let her go all the way back there when she looked like one good gust of wind would knock her on her ass, right? Not when we're that much closer." They were halfway to the fifth floor and Jack's arms were beginning to feel like they were on fire. The steps weren't helping any but he had to agree with Kloppman: the private rooms on the fifth floor, a couple of beds with curtains that went for ten cents instead of a nickel... they were hardly ever full and, besides, who would think to go looking for a girl in one of them? Just a few more steps now... Jack grunted. "You'll be able to help her, won't ya?"
"Depends," answered Kloppman, opening the dormitory door and ushering Jack in first. "What's wrong with the girl?"
For just one quick second, Jack thought about lying. It was his immediate instinct, whenever he didn't know what to say or he didn't want to say what he knew he should say but, damn it, this was old Kloppy. He couldn't lie.
"It's a cough," he admitted, "and I think she's burnin' up inside. She's awful hot."
Kloppman nodded and then pointed towards the row of private beds at the end of the room with curtains drawn around them. "Put her in the farthest bed."
"Isn't Snoddy sleepin' in there?"
"He was, but I moved him out this morning. He's breathing better now."
Jack walked over to the bed Kloppman pointed out but found it difficult to yank the curtain open without putting the girl down. Kloppman, who was rolling his sleeves up, stopped what he was doing when he noticed Jack's troubles. Joining the young man at the bed side, he swung the curtains open and stepped aside so that Jack could get nearer to the mattress.
"Right there," Kloppman instructed. "And, if you can, try to get that sheet off of her."
"But she's shiverin'" pointed out Jack.
"That's the fever talking, Cowboy. I'll get her something heavier, try to sweat it out."
As Jack set Stress down—she muffled and cried out in her sleep but didn't do anything but cling tighter to her sheet—Kloppman went off in search of a quilt. He found one fresh from the laundry and brought it back with him to the fifth floor. He wasn't surprised to see that Jack hadn't gotten the sheet off of her and, instead of trying, he covered her with the quilt the best he could.
In an attempt to save his own aching knees, he also thought ahead and brought a pitcher of cool water and a rag with him. Kloppman then busied himself with setting the girl's head against the pillow before placing a cool rag on her fever forehead. For just one moment, the old superintendent thought he saw her eyes flicker but then she was still again.
Having done that, the old superintendent pulled the curtains around Stress and nodded over at Jack. "Let's let her sleep some, shall we?" He led the way back into the hall but paused once they'd left the dormitory. Kloppman crossed his arms over his chest. "Now that we're out here alone, why don't you tell me why you're helping this girl. You're a good kid, Cowboy, but I think this is being just a little too good."
This time Jack didn't even think of lying—even if he did entertain the idea of pretending he hadn't heard the question.
He sighed and just managed to resist the urge to kick the door in frustration. Kloppman was still waiting. "You remember that girl who was lookin' for Francis Sullivan, don't ya? What was it, almost a week ago?"
Jack took a deep breath and leaned his head back up against the wall. "That was my sister. I know, I never said I had a sister, 'cause I thought she was gone, alright? But she wasn't and now she is and..." He ran his hands roughly through his hair, his eyes suddenly wild and wide. "That girl back in there is my only link to Emma."
"Okay," said Kloppman after another moment's hard thought, "I see. That case, I'll do what I can. You have my word, Cowboy. Now, do me a favor, man the desk for me while I get the girl a fresh rag? Maybe get something for that cough of hers, too."
"Um, yeah. Sure thing, Kloppy."
And Jack, massaging his arms and dying for a smoke, took the escape that Kloppman offered him as quickly as he could. Something inside had him worrying about Emma's friend, mainly the fact that he was still worrying so damn much about Emma herself, but if he trusted Alfred Kloppman with his life—and he did—then there were no better hands he could leave Stress in.
It was barely two o'clock in the afternoon and with the evening edition still a couple of hours away, there wasn't much for Jack to do while he waited in the lobby. It was rare that any of the boys would stop back between selling, especially on such a nice, hot summer day like that one, and he wasn't surprised to find the lodging house empty as he waited for Kloppman to reappear downstairs again.
In the end Jack kept his hands busy rifling through the ledgers, making notes and drawing stick figure horses in the corner on random pages. He kept an ear out for any of the fellas returning to the lodging house early or for when Kloppman came back, seeing as how he didn't want to be caught going through Kloppman's things after all the help the superintendent
"Well, I've done the best I could," Kloppman said, wiping his hands on his handkerchief as he came down the last few stairs, "but that one's living on God's time now."
That was not what Jack had been hoping to here. The girl's awake and healthy and ready to tell you all about where you could find Emma... now that was what Jack was listening for.
"But she has to be okay," he argued out loud, speaking more to himself than to Kloppman. "She's the only one who might be able to help me find my sister. What am I supposed to do?"
The boy was charming, there was no doubt about that. He could spin a cock and bull story better than half the fellas who lodged the Duane Street. Half the time half the words out of his mouth were a lie and yet, for some reason, Kloppman felt touched at his concern for a sister he hadn't seen in ages.
Besides Kloppman had, on Moira Porter's dime, spent the last five years or so watching over Jack, making sure he didn't get into too much trouble—save a stint in the Refuge that Moira felt served her brother's young son. However, though he was the only one who knew the truth about Francis Sullivan, he'd let himself be pulled into the charade that was Jack Kelly. In time, he'd even come to care about the boy which was why—
"That little girl? Your Emma? I think I might know where she could be..."
End Note: I know it's been awhile but, well, I know I have to finish this before I start anything new and, considering I just joined the Newsies Union... yeah. So, I figured, this story only had three chapters left - two now - and it's been hanging on the edge for too long. After this there's one last long chapter and then an epilogue so I hope to finish that up fairly soon :) 'Til then, I hope you guys enjoyed this chapter... it was certainly a doozy for me to work through!
- stress, 01.28.12