Disclaimer: The character of Spot Conlon in this story is the property of Disney and his likeness is only used for fan related purposes. Any original characters featured are the intellectual property of their creators.
Mrs. Lucy Kirby was dead.
It was to be expected. The cough had been coming on for a handful of years, only growing worse and worse as the turn of the new century approached and then it was worst; before long, the oncoming rasp of a dry, rattling cough was a better sign the matron was walking the halls than the familiar clack-clack-clack of her sensible shoes. The coughs left her weak, her weakness leaving her unable to teach the evening lessons or stay up at all hours to make sure the boys were behaving, and it seemed as if her coughs were more serious than anyone had thought.
No one was surprised—and none of them were pleased—when Mrs. Cole replaced Mrs. Kirby as matron of the Working Boys' Home during the fall of 1900. Mrs. Kirby's strength had failed her entirely and she was placed in the hospital where, if God was listening, she would get better.
She didn't. Four short months later and the woman was dead.
It was to be expected—but that didn't mean that she wasn't mourned. Especially by the young Brooklyn wards she tended to and watched over for the last decade or more.
Mrs. Kirby was laid to rest at the Green-Wood Cemetery but that was for the society ladies and the hobnobs of Brooklyn; something about the foreboding main entrance to the grand cemetery warned the newsies from trying to attend the service. Spot Conlon, who was in the habit of halfheartedly crossing himself and only because he picked up the tic from Scotch, figured St. Vincent's would burst into unholy flame if he attempted crossing over the threshold. The other boys, following his lead, chipped in a penny for a wreath of flowers. Their new matron, old, hawk-faced Mrs. Cole, promised to lay it on the grave in their name. Not quite trusting the woman, Spot sent Murphy along after her to spy and make sure she did.
Murphy returned later afternoon with word that Mrs. Cole had done as she said and, for the first time since she took the reins, Mrs. Cole found the boys an easier lot to manage. Life was a little smoother in the lodging house after that for her and even Scotch O'Reilly managed to meet curfew for the first couple of nights.
And with that, for most of them at least, it was the end of Mrs. Kirby. There weren't too many who remembered Mrs. Kirby when she died, very few had grown up under her watchful eye like Spot had, or Scotch or even Wednesday. Scotch declared that losing Mrs. Kirby was worse than losing his own mam and, dragging Wednesday along with him, went to mourn Mrs. Kirby with a half a bottle of his namesake to split between them. Spot, who secretly agreed with Scotch and thought he had the right idea, turned down the invitation to join them—but that didn't mean he was above the grief. It just meant he didn't want to share it with anyone else.
So, instead, Spot Conlon went down to the local pub alone the evening Mrs. Kirby was buried. If Red knew where he was going, she would've tried to stop him; she didn't approve of drink, especially if Spot was the one drinking it, and in not so many words, would always remind him of what happened the last time he drank too much while she was around. Still, an Irish boy, born and bred, Spot knew of only one way to deal with sorrow and that was to drown it.
One drink, that was all. He nodded over at Charlie the bartender who, without even blinking an eye, poured out a liberal shot of whiskey for the world-weary boy. Only a few weeks shy of his eighteenth birthday, Spot had been tipping back whiskeys since he was sixteen and he realized for the first time what made the spirit so enticing to Butchy Rogers. The things the leader of Brooklyn had to see, had to do—not to mention the things, the memories, the ghosts Spot had to deal with on his own—it was no surprise that a little help was needed.
He held the glass half-full of the sloshing amber liquid in his right hand, contemplating it.
"To Mrs. Kirby," he said and, in one gulp, drained his glass. He barely flinched as the all-too-familiar burn raced down his chest. He sat his empty glass back on the counter top. "Maybe now that she's gone, Liam can finally stop hauntin' me."
Liam... to her final days, Mrs. Kirby refused to call Spot anything but his hated given name. Deep down he suspected he would miss it, miss having that one person who knew him when he was still Liam Conlon, a sticky-fingered eight-year-old boy who ran to the Working Boys' Home because he didn't have anywhere else to go when his father turned him out. Of course, that didn't mean he would share that with anyone else—not even with Red, who'd taken it in her head lately that Spot couldn't really be the only name he had—and as he sat at the bar, he felt as if he'd lost part of himself when Mrs. Kirby died.
Then again, he wasn't sure he'd want it back, even if that were possible. Which, of course, was another reason he'd headed to the pub that night.
Charlie was lingering at the other end of the bar, filling mugs, pouring out whiskeys, spitting tales with some of the regulars. Glancing up, he caught sight of Spot's empty glass and made to come over. Spot shook his head. One drink, that's what he told himself. Besides, it wouldn't do to get drunk. He hadn't made that mistake in months, not since he first discovered that Red—his Red—was promised to marry that bastard, Tommy Sanders, and he wasn't about to start now.
There wasn't much Spot Conlon was afraid of. Waking up with blanks for a memory, covered in blood he couldn't explain, the worries that he couldn't even control himself... that was Spot's second biggest fear. Damn if it was specific, but it had happened once before and he was stubborn enough to make sure it never happened again.
Even if his mouth watered for just one more taste...
Spot swallowed and, if only to take his mind off of the whiskey bottle in Charlie's hands, cast a steely gaze around the tavern. Dim and dank, conversations muffled and muted so they wouldn't be overheard, the tavern was a dead-end dive that only the lost and the lonely found solace in; just then, Spot wasn't sure where he fit in, only that he fit in perfectly. Things were calmer these days, the cold and the snow keeping those with homes in them. The fear that stalked the streets last summer had given way to the apathy of those endless winter nights.
Amazingly, he thought, there were less people in the bars now than during the height of the Beast's reign in New York City—but there were still some.
There was an old man watching him from a darkened corner, a thin, rail of a man lurking in the shadows while nursing his tumbler of gin. Spot caught him staring and, seeing that he wasn't a threat, looked away. Maybe the man thought Spot too young to be wasting his evening in the bar, or maybe he just envied Spot's youth, whatever it was, he couldn't really find it in him to care. Spot was only too aware of what a lifetime of spirits did to the unlucky bastards who survived on the still. He didn't need any other reminders.
Instead, picking up his empty glass again, he stared down at the few drops of whiskey that ringed the bottom and frowned if only because he'd been the one to empty it.
For a one thump of a heartbeat grief gave way to guilt that quickly turned to self-fury. This shouldn't have happened to him. When he was a kid, busy watching his father drink himself into his grave, Spot knew he was too good to ever take up the bottle. For years just the rank odor of stale liquor made his stomach clench and his hands ball into fists. First his father, then Butchy, and he swore it wouldn't suck him in. And it did. He still couldn't take the smell, he found himself breathing through his mouth rather than his nose when he went to the tavern, but the taste... maybe he wasn't strong enough.
Maybe it was just in his blood.
In the back of his mind, Spot knew that Mrs. Kirby would've had a stern word or two for him if she knew that this was how he was mourning her. He was already dreading Red's reaction when she found out—if she found out. He wasn't going to tell her. Yeah, she was his girl now—but Spot was his own man.
Eighteen. Spot Conlon was only going to be eighteen years old, but those ten years were what separated him from the brat he'd been when he up and decided it was time to take care of himself. There had been girls—too many—and friends—a few good ones, too—and now he was as close to being in love as a fella like Spot Conlon could ever be with a person and not a city. And maybe that was what put these ideas in his head. He would be eighteen in a few days, but what then?
He couldn't be a newsie forever. Could he?
Butchy was twenty when Spot ran him out. No other newsboy had stuck around past nineteen before Butchy and, up until a year ago, Spot thought he might make it to twenty-one, maybe even twenty-two with his baby face and his quick wit and even quicker slingshot. He hadn't heard any rumblings yet about the way he was running the city. There were no turf wars, not since the emergence of the damn Beast briefly united all of the territories; when it was the newsies versus a phantom killer, what did it matter if the Bronx wanted to get into a scrap with Harlem? Even now that the Beast seemed to have gone into hibernation for the winter, there was still peace.
And yet... maybe it had something to do with Mrs. Kirby's passing, but it was like everything that had happened to Spot these last few months had happened to someone else, or maybe in a dream that Spot had finally woken up from. Finding Red again after he'd long given up hope on his childhood friend, having her choose him, having her love him... Red wasn't like those other girls he had once known. Instead of trying to figure out how to ditch her, he found himself wondering how to keep her close. Worst of all, Spot hadn't forgotten about the wedding dress her tailor father made for her, wasting away when Red would make a beautiful bride for one lucky bastard.
He'd been entertaining the sneaking hope lately that maybe it would be him, but what if it wasn't? What if that lucky bastard was some other man? How long would it take for Red to realize they were just playing another game? Children again, pretending that a tailor's daughter and a good-for-nothing newsie could ever really be friends, let alone anything more.
Spot held up his glass at eye level, swirling it with one hand, staring at the wobbling drops with such an intensity it was a surprise they didn't burst into flame.
Mrs. Kirby was gone, the one person he'd known longer than anyone else in this world; Mrs. Kirby, the closest to a mother he'd had since he'd lost his own at the tender age of six. Hell, it could've been the grief putting those ideas in Spot's head but he doubted it. Somehow he couldn't help but think that the grief was making things clearer than they had been in the longest time.
One thing was for sure: for now, Red Woods belonged to Spot. Brooklyn still belonged to Spot. But Spot Conlon was his own man.
Which was why, the next time Charlie made his way down towards Spot's end of the bar and gestured questioningly with the open bottle, Spot just nodded.
If it was the perfect night to be burned up by a shot of whiskey in order to ignore the pain (or maybe indulge it), it was even better for moonlit meetings underneath the stars. Except, with the dark winter clouds rolling across the sky, there was no moon and there were no stars, but for a young woman with a clandestine meeting on her mind, she preferred it that way.
Cinder Harrow was used to the shadows. They were long and tall in the winter but nowhere near as dark and she found it harder to slip inside of them, hiding herself from prying eyes. She turned to an ankle-length cloak, black as the shadows she dealt in, with a hood that she placed over her ratty, knotty raven-colored hair. Not only did it help her move in the darkness, it was a ward to the chill and the bitter wind that ravaged Brooklyn in early February.
And the fact that it was a dark mockery of the red cape that damn Red Woods wore... that was just a fair coincidence, Cinder insisted.
The wind was whipping, sending her hair flying around her head, her cloak tangling at her ankles until she tamed it with one firm tug into place. The heavy scent of snow was on the air, the promise of another damn white tomorrow. Cinder shivered, taking care to side-step a patch of well-trodden ice that she nearly stepped on. She was later than she should've been, later than she wanted to be, and in her haste, she wasn't going as carefully as winter in Brooklyn warranted.
There was a small park in front of her, nothing as fancy as Prospect Park or anything like that, a couple of trees and a bench. It was the bench she was heading towards, her head bowed to escape the icy bite of the wind, her gaze turned down for any other treacherous patches of old ice. She knew a girl at the factory, a small whelp called Bitsy who took a bad turn on the ice and lost both kneecaps and her job. Cinder wasn't going to let anything like that happen to her.
The closer she drew to the park, the more obvious that there was a shadowed figure already sitting on one side of the bench. Whether on purpose or not, he wore a dark grey shirt, a grey cabby hat and black trousers that kept him as hidden by the dark night as Cinder. He was poised on the edge of his seat, his head swiveling back and forth as if he was waiting for someone, watching for something, and she knew for sure that he was looking for her.
A little out of breath from the cold and her pace, Cinder took a moment to calm herself before moving towards the bench, softly and slowly.
The figure turned to his left as he heard the gentle steps of her approach. Cinder Harrow may walk like a cat, with near-silent footfalls, but he was both used to listening to sounds many others wouldn't hear and expecting her to come from that direction. He removed his hat as a sign of respect though he didn't stand up just yet. "Cinder," he said, and his voice was smooth and charming, without any accent at all. "I was just about to give up hope that you were coming."
"You said something about gettin' Spot," Cinder explained, looking down on him but trying her best not to see him. It was one thing to get a message from him, but to actually see him again? And to think that she thought she was stronger than this... "Of course I came."
"I remember saying it was about getting back at Spot."
"To me, that amounts to the same thing."
"You look good," he told her, moving so that he was right in her line of vision, forcing her to meet his light stare.
"Don't expect me to say the same," Cinder snapped, just a little on edge. She could hardly believe that, after all this time, she was face to face with him again. And, regardless of what she said, he looked better. She frowned. "Fishin' for compliments as always, Dodge?"
Dodge McLain's face lit up with an angelic smile. It was easy to see that, with his golden curls and sea-foam green eyes, Dodge had no trouble getting compliments. "I just thought I'd pass a kind minute before we got down to business." Then, with a gallant move, he gestured to the empty seat beside him. "Join me?"
"I'd rather stand."
He was on his feet in an instant. "Then I'll join you."
Cinder hadn't expected him to move so close, so quick. Only years of experience, surviving on her own, working in the factory during the days, scrapping on the streets at night... only her last few years of living kept her from darting away when Dodge was only a couple of inches away from her nose. But that didn't stop her from warning him, "Come any closer and I'll—"
She didn't even finish her threat. Dodge clutched at his heart, wounded; his eyes still gleamed wickedly. "Is that how you treat such an old-time pal? After all these years?"
Cinder snorted and, crossing her arms over her chest, took advantage of the moment to take a few steps back. "Dodge, you've been gone... what? Three years now? Four?"
"That's what I thought. You've been gone four years now and, outta the blue, I get a message that you're back and all ya want is to get revenge on Spot. That right?"
"Something like that, darlin'," Dodge agreed, his smile back in place. He even managed to look a little amused.
Cinder, though, her dark eyes flashed at the way he called her "darling". Sneering, her thin lips drawn back to present her feline-like fangs, she bristled and drew herself up to her full height. "I don't care that you're back. We've never been friends—"
"You want to use the word lover instead?" Dodge asked innocently.
"That would make it sound like love was involved," Cinder shot back.
"Then what do you want to call it, seeing as how we—"
"Shut up, Dodge... just, shut up, alright? Ancient history, that's all that was, and a goddamn mistake if ya ask me. I was young and stupid, you was—"
"Handsome and charming?" supplied Dodge.
"—ridin' my skirt until I finally let you have what you was after," Cinder accused. "I was weak... but I ain't like that anymore. I ain't that little girl who got her head turned by the fella who thought he'd be runnin' Brooklyn next."
Dodge pretended to think about it for a second, tapping his chin with one long, slender, pale finger. "No," he said, as if just coming to the conclusion, "you're just the tramp who hung back and then jumped into Spot Conlon's bed willingly the second he ran Butchy out of town."
For some reason, being called a tramp by Dodge McLain had a much better effect on Cinder than his simpering use of darling. She huffed. "So what's it to ya? That's why we're here, right? You want to get back at Spot?" She jutted her chin out in defiance. "What for?"
The air of playfulness that had surrounded Dodge—because it was such a grand game, baiting Cinder like that—disappeared at once. "Because he took something that was mine," he told her, and she could hear that even his voice had changed from merriment to sudden seriousness. "Something that belonged to me. My greatest love is being wasted by Conlon and I won't stand for it any longer. I've come here to get it back."
Despite her better instincts, Cinder listened to the possessive way Dodge spoke of his love and, almost as if she couldn't control herself, her chest started to puff out a little in unbridled pride, a purr-like contentment rising up to her throat—
—until Dodge got one look at Cinder, the factory girl damn near preening as she looked up at him, and he snapped, "Oh, don't flatter yourself. I was talking about Brooklyn."
His barb was as sharp as a pin and perfectly positioned to puncture her. Like a balloon that had been popped, Cinder deflated and if it wasn't for the fact that she'd walked into that trap herself, she would've licked her own wounds. Instead, with a glare as fierce as any stray cat, she glared over at him.
Dodge simply laughed, looking all the more handsome for it. Four year later and he could still turn Cinder Harrow's head and bring her to her knees. No love indeed. "So that's me," he said sweetly with an innocent grin; the game, if that's what it was, was back on. "What about you, Cinder? Why've you come here?"
Cinder blinked Dodge's smiling face from her eyes, searching for Spot, seeing Spot... Spot and Red... and any and all annoyance she felt towards Dodge was nothing compared to the heat of the fury that burned Cinder up when she thought of Spot and Red together.
"Because he chose that damn blondie over me," she spat out. "Spot was mine and she took him. I'll never let either of them get away with that!"
"Blondie?" Dodge quirked an eyebrow, suddenly a whole lot more interested in anything Cinder had to say. "Why don't you tell me about this blondie of Conlon's. Is she pretty?"
The green of Cinder's cat-like eyes flashed murderously. "Not as pretty as me."
"Hardly. Her father is a tailor." Cinder said tailor like it was a bad word and Dodge thought he might understand a little better now.
"Ain't ya listenin' to me? She ain't nothin'!"
Dodge pursed his lips, a tease. "Then why would he ever choose her over you, Cinder?"
Cinder wrapped her cloak tight around her shoulders; hate burned in her eyes, coming off of her in heated waves, but still she was cold. So very cold. Blaming it on Dodge, she glared at him as she said, "I've been askin' myself the same question for months."
"What if I told you I could give you the answer you've been looking for? Or, better yet... hear me out, Cinder," Dodge said, holding up his hand when she opened her mouth, "how about I told you I could give you the answer you want. What you want."
"Go on. I'm listenin'."
"When I have Brooklyn, you can have Spot—"
"Ha!" Cinder's wry laugh exploded out of her. "Like I haven't heard that before." And then, because Dodge looked torn between being annoyed that she interrupted him anyway and slightly curious, she went into the whole story of Tommy Sanders and how he promised her Spot in exchange for Red Woods for himself only for the both of them, Cinder and Tommy, to end up alone.
"See, that's where we differ, your friend Tommy and me. I'm not doing this for the love of a girl," Dodge sneered, the expression making him ugly for the first time that night, "this is about the love of a city. Besides, you didn't let me finish before. When I said you could have Conlon, I was meaning all of him or just parts of him... you could have his head on a plate, if you want it. 'Cause either I run him out of Brooklyn after a fair fight or I kill him and take Brooklyn anyway. And you know me, Cinder—I've never been much of a fair fighter."
"What's that they say?" Dodge asked, as if he hadn't heard Cinder's gasp. "'All's fair in love and war'? In that case, maybe I'm a fairer fighter than I thought."
It struck Cinder then, a cold that went deeper than the icy February wind; she pulled her cloak even tighter, trying to sink beneath the heavy black fabric as if she would just disappear. Revenge... revenge was what she was after. But murder? Not that again. "Dodge, I—"
Dodge reached up his hand and, for one wild moment, Cinder thought he was going to hit her. She didn't flinch, though she wanted to, and when all Dodge did was pluck idly at the golden curl at his forehead, she felt foolish. But that feeling was short-lived, switching easily over to a nervous sort of dread as soon as Dodge added conversationally—
"I should tell you... if you go on and rat me out to Conlon first, you get cold feet and try to back out now... 'All's fair in love and war'... well, I'll just have to consider that to be a little bit of both."
And Cinder knew, certain as the understanding that she'd made a huge mistake meeting him that night, that he meant every word.
- stress, 10.01.11