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.
Charlotte Woods was sitting in her bedroom, stubbornly trying her hands at sewing a gift. Then again, considering she'd already pricked two fingers and there was a make-shift bandage, a bit of lace torn from her chemise, wrapped around her sliced thumb, it might've been better to point out that she was trying one hand and the two good fingers she had left on the other at sewing a gift.
Needless to say, it wasn't going well.
Still, she'd been working at it again since her father went back down to his tailor's shop after lunch and, though she knew it was about time she started wondering about supper—whether she wanted to have something prepared, or if her father should run along to the corner deli for sandwiches—she couldn't bear the fact that she was fighting a losing battle with a bit of fabric, some thread and a needle that was too sharp for her own good.
It was to be a heart-shaped pillow, a silly, girlish fancy, but she was fooling herself if she thought it looked like anything other than a lopsided bean—and she hadn't even put the stuffing inside yet!
She had borrowed some of her father's best fabric, colored the same red as Spot's favorite blanket and Charlotte's ribbon, with thread that was dyed to match. She wanted nothing more than to create something from her heart for Spot's upcoming birthday, a nice pillow he could stow away in his shed for when he needed it, but she couldn't give him this. He deserved so much more than this Frankenstein creation.
Maybe, she thought hopefully, pulling at a loose thread, eyeing a crooked seam in despair, maybe Papa could help—
Her thought stopped right there. She wouldn't allow it go any further, and it wasn't just because she knew that her father couldn't really approve of her loving a Brooklyn newsboy. In thinly veiled frustration, Charlotte huffed and let the mangled bit of fabric fall down to the top of her sewing desk. She couldn't even stand to look at it for a moment longer.
Leaning back on her stool, clasping her suddenly trembling hands in her lap, Charlotte tried not to remember the last time she had asked her father for help to make a gift. Nearly five months ago now, last September when Tommy Sanders celebrated his twenty-first birthday, she had painstakingly constructed a bow tie as a present for the man she had been promised to marry. Now, though, now that it was the first week of February and she was with the boy she wanted to marry, she longed to create something that showed him how much she cared.
Oh, she could buy him a gift. Or maybe take him to see a vaudeville show, just the two of them together. But Charlotte would remember how her last gift to Tommy had been made by hand and darn it if Spot didn't deserve the same, if not better. Which was why she had spent the last day and a half trying her best to make this pillow, even if she wouldn't ask her father for help with Spot's gift this time around.
Besides, she knew very well that most of her unease stemmed from the unavoidable fact that her father didn't approve of her relationship with Spot Conlon and... and...
Charlotte huffed and stood up from her seat, her back achy from sitting hunched over her sewing desk. Leaving the half-finished project behind her on the desktop, she walked over to her bed and plopped down at the head, turning her back on the desk and the pillow and her window behind her.
No one knew better than she that once those sort of thoughts started, they couldn't be stopped. Five months later and the ghosts still haunted Charlotte in a way she refused to confide in anyone else. Certainly not Spot, and definitely not her father. They were more alike than either of the two men realized, especially how both Spot and Mr. Woods fretted constantly over her, and she refused to give them any other reason to be concerned.
She could just see it now. If she told Spot about her nightmares, he'd blame himself. Her father would insist on her staying in, maybe even going to visit a doctor or two about her worries. She loved them both, but the way they regarded her as fragile as a China doll, one rough touch away from shattering... it was enough to make her madder than she already thought she was.
Fighting with a needle and thread wasn't helping matters, either.
Charlotte put her head in her tired hands, closing her eyes as if that would stop her from seeing the ghastly visions in her mind. When the dark thoughts, the bad memories, when they all took over, she hated herself for being as weak as she was. She loved Papa and she loved Spot and it hurt her more than she ever said out loud that they didn't get along. But that didn't mean she was willing to give up on her newsboy lover, just like she refused to accept Spot's offer of the two of them running away together. He couldn't leave Brooklyn, not really, and she wouldn't even let him try. The two could stay together there, as difficult as it was, as different as they were.
So what if her father couldn't understand why she chose Spot Conlon over any other man? Mr. Woods had wanted her to marry Tommy when she didn't really love him and look where that had gotten them all—
The thoughts, the memories, why won't they go away?
—her father, worked to the bone because he refused to take Ed Sanders' charity any longer. Mr. Sanders, forced to hire an assistant in the butcher shop now that his only son was gone. Tommy, locked up in Bellevue where he could pay for his crimes and not hurt himself or anyone else ever again. Madge Harris, dead...
The darkness made the bloodstains of her memory shine. Her eyes snapped back open, she lowered her hands and groped blindly behind her. Charlotte picked up one of her father's exquisitely stitched pillows and hugged it tightly. Even now, so many months later and she still felt that familiar and hated sense of her chest being squeezed, her lungs aching, her heart breaking whenever she remembered Madge Harris's fate. Whether or not those last words from Tommy had been true or just elaborate lies, whether Madge merely played the role of her friend or not, Charlotte still couldn't forget that a young woman she thought of as a friend was dead in her name.
Tommy killed Madge for her, he had said as much himself. Nothing mattered but that single statement: Tommy did it because he honestly believed Charlotte would want him to.
It was no wonder she was as fragile and as weak as she was: that burden of guilt was a heavy weight to bear. It had been easier lately to tell herself it wasn't her fault, that she hadn't ever really encouraged the butcher's son. Both Mr. Sanders and Mr. Woods repeatedly agreed that she wasn't the one to blame and Spot absolutely refused to let her feel any guilt whenever he was around.
Except, ever since Mrs. Kirby's death, Spot hadn't been around and—
What was that? Charlotte straightened at the sudden tapping sound, almost sure she had imagined it. Resting on the edge of her bed, tensed, she waited to see if she would hear it again—
No doubt about it that time. It was coming from her window. Someone... someone was throwing pebbles up at her window. There was someone calling for her from outside—
—and they were getting antsy.
She got up quickly then and, despite the fact that it was impossible to see from the street, she shoved the in-progress present inside the lid of her sewing desk. A warm and winning smile replaced the look of anguish and frustration that had creased her brow and caused her to frown. No longer afraid when she heard the slap against the glass, she tucked the loose strands of honey-blonde hair behind her ears and straightened her blouse.
There was only one person who ever called for her like that.
Red pulled the curtain away from the window and her smile fluttered as her heart gave that little skip it did every time she saw him. Because there he was. Waiting for her under the lamppost, there stood Spot Conlon. And though she couldn't tell from the distance or the rushing night, he was grinning his cocky, lazy little grin as he stared meaningfully up at her window.
She hadn't been expecting him. Spot had sent Murphy a few days before with the news that the old matron of the Working Boys' Home had passed away after a long, drawn-out bout with pneumonia. And, despite her offer of coming to stay with him, she listened to him when it was clear that Spot obviously wanted to be left alone. Just like how there was a bit of a distance between her world and his, the respectable tailor's daughter and the newsboy, she had learned that, even when she was Spot's Red, there were still a separation that she couldn't breach.
But, whether she had been expecting him or not, he was there and she couldn't deny how the simple sight of that silhouette beneath her window made her heart swell.
Still, she had to be sure. Fumbling with the catch, Red unlocked the window and lifted it high. A cold wind blew in, setting even more of her hair free from her red ribbon's hold. She shivered at the chill but stuck her head out the open window regardless.
"Yeah, Red, it's me."
"What are you doing down there?"
"Why don't you go on and let down your hair?" Spot's teasing voice carried on the wind up to her window. She could almost swear he was wearing his old, familiar smirk. "I could climb on up then."
He wouldn't take the stairs. In fact, he wouldn't come any closer to Red's home than the lamp post underneath her window. When he was in a good mood, he liked to joke about it; when he was in a sullen mood, he waited under the lamp post until she made her way down; when he was angry, Spot Conlon rarely showed at all.
His habit of lurking underneath her second floor window had everything to do with the Beast and his reign of terror last summer. Even though it had been almost three months since his last attack, when a young streetwalker from Manhattan managed to escape the phantom killer with enough information about the ghoul that he seemed to have fled New York at last, Spot still acted as if he owned that corner, not Mr. Sanders. He dared anyone—the butcher, the tailor, the copper on his beat—to turn him away.
No one ever did.
Because, while there were still threats in Brooklyn, the Beast wasn't one of them anymore, and even if John Woods didn't understand his daughter's affection for a street boy, he couldn't deny that Charlotte was safer in the company of Spot Conlon than wandering around the city on her own looking for him. And, if he forbid her from seeing Spot, that's exactly what she would be doing. He had learned last summer that, despite trying to clip her wings, Charlotte was the sort of young lady who needed to soar. A few months shy of her own eighteenth birthday, her father had finally freed her from her cage.
Nothing showed her that the Beast was no longer to be feared anymore than her father's changed attitude when it came to going out without a chaperone. Maybe it was because his shop had been so busy at the end of last year, with customers fitting their coats and sewing Christmas gowns, but Mr. Woods had hardly had any time to keep up the stock of his trade. When he ran out of something so simple as black thread and some quilted material, rather than hire the shoe-shine boy to run his errands, he allowed Charlotte to visit Mr. Smith and his new shop assistant for the supplies.
And, because he knew that she would just sneak out otherwise, he allowed her the opportunity to take walks with Spot—just as long as she told him where she was going first. Mr. Woods hadn't forgotten about Madge Harris' murder, either...
Red pulled loosely on one thick, wavy strand of her hair. Laughing to herself at the idea of Spot trying to climb it at any length—and marveling at how much it would hurt if he could—she shook her head and called back down to him, "No, silly. I meant: what are you doing here?"
She didn't have to say it was late out. The surrounding dark was enough of a clue to that. She also didn't have to mention his recent absence. That hung over their heads like a storm cloud. But she could be curious and, after these last few months together, Red felt as if she had earned that honor.
Spot agreed. "You hungry? I thought I'd take you out for a meal."
She knew better than to invite Spot in. He wouldn't at any rate and if for some reason he did, she couldn't think of a more awkward supper. Except, perhaps, for the night when she got engaged—
That was another thought she stopped dead in its tracks. Red felt her pleased smile waver before she pasted a firmer one in its place. "Just let me leave a note for Papa," she yelled down to Spot, "and I'll be right down."
Spot nodded and then, as easily as if the pole was molded to fit the shape of his back, he leaned up against it comfortably, content to wait.
Red ducked back inside her bedroom before shutting the window and, out of habit, making sure she reset the catch on top. The Beast was a memory but not a far-too distant memory and, second floor or not, she wasn't taking any chances. Then, once she had satisfied herself that the half-finished pillow was still hidden—and still looking nothing like the heart she wanted so badly to create—Red scurried into the kitchen, made her father a quick sandwich in case he was hungry when the tailor shop closed for its supper break, and tucked a note under the plate, letting him know where she had run off to.
Having done all that, she scurried back into her bedroom and threw open the door to her wardrobe. It was cold out and Red wasn't sure how far of a walk it would be before they arrived at one of Spot's chosen haunts. Her cape might be too thin but her father, as a Christmas gift, had tailored her a thicker cloak with a lining that fought back against Brooklyn's cruel winters. She grabbed it from its hook, threw it over her shoulder and ran out the front door.
It was colder outside than she expected. Pausing on the bottom step that led out to the open street, Red pulled her hood up and over her head, shrugged her cloak a little closer and made her way over to Spot, trying to move faster than the bitter wind.
He had on his newsboy cap and a over-sized grey overcoat that looked barely heavier than her cape. But, except from the raw and red ends of his ears and the tip of his nose, Spot didn't seem to feel the cold at all. Red envied him that and moved nearer to him in case he was willing to share some of his warmth.
As she did, as she drew next to him, the wind guided the flickering flame of the gas lamp across Spot's face just long enough for Red to get a good look at him and see that the tip of nose wasn't the only part of his face that was red. His eyes, glazed over and tired, were noticeably so, even if the shadows underneath threatened to swallow them whole.
He looked absolutely awful. Red couldn't keep back her disappointed sigh. This wasn't the first time she saw Spot Conlon like this and she prayed it was the last. Bad things seemed to happen—or were about to happen—whenever she found Spot in such a state.
Spot heard her disappointed sigh and, while he had a good idea why she made such a sound, he pretended he didn't. Straightening up, he nodded over at her. "Something wrong?"
She shook her head. "Not with me, no." Red bit down on her bottom lip. "Are you feeling alright?"
Spot reached up and tugged on the brim of his cap, hiding his eyes from hers. "Feel fine, Red."
"Were you drinking last night?"
He didn't want to lie, but he damn sure wished she hadn't asked that question. Spot met Red's gaze for a few tense seconds, aware that he looked like he hadn't slept, sure that she could probably still smell the reek of alcohol on his skin, and yet he refused to answer to her. Instead he shrugged, and said with such certainty, "I was mournin' last night," that Red found herself unable to argue.
"I missed you."
"I... I know."
And, for the first time since they met again last July, when Spot made that exchange, there was no hint of the cocky Brooklyn leader he was. In fact, there was a sigh and, finally, he turned his gaze away. But when Red reached out hesitantly and took his ink-stained hand in her good one, he gave hers a brief squeeze back and, suddenly, it didn't matter what Spot did or didn't do last night so long as they were together now.
"So," she said, intertwining her fingers with his, "dinner?"
"I know a great place. Best bratwurst this side of the bridge. Mashed potatoes and real beef drippings, too."
Red knew what Spot was trying to do: he was doing his best to fatten her up. In his newsboy world, when too thin meant you were going hungry and likely to starve to death, Spot blamed himself for how gaunt and skeletal she'd gone in the weeks and months following Madge Harris' murder. She's put plenty of weight back on since then—her color had all but returned to normal—but Spot's newfound habit of making sure she ate had stuck.
So, whether she was hungry or not, she told him she was famished because she would rather eat until she was sick than worry him. If he was willing to take care of her, she was more than willing to let him.
She smiled over at him, a real, heartfelt winning grin. "Sounds great, Spot."
Hand in hand with Red, Spot steered her right past the butcher's shop. For the first few weeks after Tommy's capture, Red had tried her best to continue avoiding the place as she had been used to doing except now she was avoiding Mr. Sanders rather than his son. Spot humored her for awhile but fear was such a foreign idea to the street-bred newsboy. Taking the walk past the butcher's was quicker so that was the way he took. And Red followed him.
It was like watching a carriage turn over—she just couldn't look away. As they passed the large window with the links of sausages and the cuts of beef out for sale, Red couldn't help but glance inside. Business was slow for a weekday afternoon; the only person inside was an impish young man who looked up and waved at Red as she walked by. Feeling it would be rude not to, she lifted up her right hand and offered a dainty wave back.
Spot noticed. "Who ya wavin' at?" he asked, because they both knew it wasn't at Edward Sanders.
"What? Oh..." Red's cheeks went, well, red. She'd hoped that Spot hadn't noticed but there was hardly anything that missed his eye. She looked down at the cobbles at her feet. "No one, Spot."
"Really?" His answer wasn't jealous or bitter but a little bit amused—and definitely curious. Spot quirked an eyebrow. "You just took it in your head to wave at the air?"
The last thing Red wanted was for Spot to think she was being silly, or even lying. "Well, no," she admitted, still looking away. "It's just... Mr. Sanders has hired a new boy. His name is Sam. I was waving at him."
"You've met this Sam already?"
"Yes. He's quite nice."
Spot thought about that for a moment. Nice... Red had thought Tommy Sanders was nice, too. "He's been workin' there long?"
"A couple of days, I think. Papa said Mr. Sanders waited to see if..." Red stopped right there. She never said Tommy's name out loud if she could help it, but Spot knew her well enough by now to see that it was on the tip of her tongue. She shook her head, daring a glance over at Spot. His expression was unreadable but there was a set to his jaw, a hard edge to his thin lips that compelled her to explain. "Sam's his new assistant for the shop. He does the deliveries," she added helpfully.
"A couple of days," Spot repeated, scratching the back of his neck. Maybe he was being antsy, maybe he was being overprotective, but something about this didn't sit right with him. It could've been jealousy but he didn't quite think so. More like the heavy, wary feeling that warns you when a storm's coming. He tried to shake off the discomfort, asking, "And you've already had time to meet him?"
"There hasn't been much for me to do lately," Red said as delicately as she could. She refused to mention the reason: that Mrs. Kirby's passing had meant that Spot had been more than unavailable, lost in his own thoughts, memories, depression and, she suspected, the bottom of a whiskey bottle.
But Spot understood what she wasn't saying. He tapped the tips of his fingers of one hand against the gilded top of his cane. "Maybe I should meet this Sam."
"If... if you'd like. When...?"
"How 'bout now?" And Spot's glazed eyes seemed to brighten at the prospect.
Red couldn't think of a good reason not to. Besides, even if she had, Spot wouldn't agree to it anyhow; when Spot Conlon had his mind set on something, you had a better chance diving off the Brooklyn Bridge and surviving than getting him to change his views. So she nodded and, her heart beating faster and faster, she turned back to face the wind—and Mr. Sanders' shop.
Spot moved even faster, taking one stride for every two of Red's hesitant ones. He reached the door of the butcher's shop first and then waited pointedly just on the other side for her to catch up.
There was a small bell just inside that shop that jangled loudly when Spot threw the door open and ushered Red inside. But, after a few empty moments, the bell stopped ringing and silence took its place; it went unanswered. There was no one else in the whole shop except for Spot, Red and more meat than the Irish newsboy had ever seen before in one place.
One thing was for sure: there was no sign of Red's Sam.
"That's odd," she remarked, looking around in poorly disguised relief. "He was just here."
"Another time then," said Spot after another moment's wait and though it wasn't much warmer inside the butcher's shop than it was outside, when he felt a chill, it wasn't from the cold.
A pair of sea-foam green eyes watched curiously from the other side of the street. When they caught sight of Spot's jerk of a shiver as he and the girl stepped back outside, a seemingly innocent smile turned up the corners of Dodge's cruel mouth. Delighted. Intrigued. Conlon couldn't have any idea that he was there—there was no way, not even his damn birdies had caught on to Dodge's forbidden reappearance in Brooklyn yet—but, on some level, the Brooklyn leader could tell. Maybe he felt the watchful eyes on his back, maybe he could feel his fair-haired companion already pulling ever so gently away from him, but Spot shivered momentarily and Dodge doubted it was because of the chilly wind.
When Spot spared one more searching glance into the window of the empty butcher's shop before shooting a warning gaze at the darkness and the unseen threats that lurked at his back, that's when Dodge McLain knew for damn sure that Spot was just as curious. Intrigued. Suspicious. Taking a leaf out of Cinder Harrow's book, Dodge tugged his dark grey hat down over his golden curls and simply melted into the shadows and Spot's piercing eyes passed over him, a flicker and nothing more.
Cinder, he thought and his innocent smile turned wicked.
She'd been a treasure trove of information, that girl, from the intimate details of Spot Conlon's reign as leader to the very weaknesses she'd discovered on her own, weaknesses that Dodge could use to bring the cocky bastard down. The chance for revenge enticed her to spill, a combination of Dodge's charm and steely promises of retribution kept her talking, and only jealous spite led Cinder to tell Dodge all about Spot's Red.
Or, as she had so naively introduced herself a couple of mornings ago, Charlotte...
Dodge stood back, leaning up against the brick wall, watching as his foe and the girl walked away together, whispering things that the wind whisked away. Only then, when her red cloak was gone and Spot's arrogance no longer tainted the street, did he head out of the cold himself.
End Note: Well, that was a bit of time, wasn't it? November always does that to me - with NaNo - and then Christmas, plus the fact that this chapter just... it just didn't want to be finished. I don't know how many times I re-did it until I felt like it flowed smoothly enough to finally post this. I really want to get back on track with this story - and finish up some others - so let's hope for the best ;) New year, new fic writing.
- stress, 1.12.12