Disclaimer: The character of Jack Kelly featured 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.
Author's Note: Thanks to Laces' awesome giftfic for the NML's 2011 Secret Santa exchange, I've been delving back into the history between Jack and my OC Stress. This is a Christmas-based one shot that takes place a couple of years before the movie, when they're a little younger and the idea that a charming bastard like Jack Kelly might actually be a little intimidated by a Christmas kiss ;)
It was Christmas Eve 1896, and there were signs of the season everywhere.
From the ribbons tied lavishly around the gas lamps to the big Christmas geese hanging enticingly in the butchers' windows, not to mention the feeling of goodwill everywhere and the inexplicably overwhelming scent of cinnamon and peppermint on the air, there was no denying the holiday. Carolers strolled in groups, singing songs, looking for some yuletide cheer; many of them actually managed the same melody and, except for the mischievousness of one young orphan, none of the words were rude at all. There wasn't any snow just yet, though the heavy, grey clouds promised it sooner or later, but there was plenty of green—
—and, thought Jack Kelly as he leaned his head back against the brick wall behind him, red.
Now, he loved Christmas. The Children's Aid Society always managed a great feast for the newsboys on Christmas day, with roasted potatoes and fresh-baked breads and honest-to-goodness meat. Peppermint candies and plenty of pie always followed and, after living at the lodging house on Duane Street since he was old enough to hawk headlines, Jack knew to go for Mrs. Walker's apple pie before any of the other fellas got their grubby, ink-stained hands on it.
And then there were the gifts. Never anything much, seeing as how there was never enough money to buy anything fancy, but the newsies were a family in their way and either a secondhand or, hell, even a gift made by hand was just as good as any. Last year he scrounged two half-smoked cigars for Race, one almost-not-frayed at all lace for Mush's left shoe, a cigarette case made up of folded newspaper and cardboard for Blink and a drawn card for Kloppy; Jack wasn't an artist by any means but, well, Kloppman said he liked it and he even got Dutchy's help for the spelling.
Then there was the fact that the lodging house allowed two night's free lodging for Christmas Eve through Boxing Day—because, the CAS figured, who needed alms more than the poor newsboys of New York City?—and you couldn't find hardly a reason why Jack was skulking around so hesitantly that Christmas Eve afternoon.
Except for the greens and the red. That was.
You see, it was tradition that the greens went up on Christmas Eve. Tannenbaum trees went up in the houses and apartments of those who could afford them. Handmade wreaths went up on the doors of some who couldn't. And then there was the touch of green that, for the first time ever, Jack was worried about—
Which, of course, explained the red. Because what was the point of sneaking up on a fella and stealing a kiss underneath the mistletoe if no one else knew about it? It was the girls down at the Bottle Alley Home who came up with the brilliant idea of snatching a bunch of mistletoe each, running around with their lips painted the most vibrant red ever, kissing whatever newsie they happened upon that day. For kicks, too!
Poor Skittery... Skittery Daniels, of all people, was the first schmuck to have been caught. One of the bigger girls, Florence, faster than her breadth should've allowed, she cornered him a few blocks just past Newsies Square, leaving a pair of lips printed crookedly on his cheek. Skittery had to have a fresh hand-rolled and a swig off the whiskey bottle Dusty kept hidden in the bunkroom to forget about that.
And he was only the first...
Mush Meyers, on the other hand, hethought the idea charming and by the time Jack stumbled upon him, there were at least five marks all over his face. Jack made sure to note all the places where Mush had been caught and, most pointedly, avoided them.
It was now middle of the afternoon and Jack was beginning to think he was one of the only boys left who hadn't been found out by a Bottle Alley girl. He would've just returned to the lodging house early and made his final escape but the Society ladies had bustled in and taken over the whole building a day early. When the alternative was being shanghaied by the fancy ladies and helping clean every inch of the lodging house for the Christmas festivities tomorrow, Jack decided to take his chances with the mistletoe.
Besides, he could outsmart a couple of girls, couldn't he?
And it wasn't that he didn't like the idea of kissing. At fourteen, he was at the age where kissing a girl started to have a little more of a fizz and a sparkle in his mind. It was just the idea of some forward lass running up to him and planting a red stain of her lips against his cheek before he could protect himself from it. The mistletoe seemed to be giving the Bottle Alley girls a dash of freedom, some spirit and the idea that they could chose who they could kiss.
It was all fine and good to be doing it in the name of Christmas but, and he shuddered, what if she was ugly? No thanks—
"Jack? Jack Kelly? Is that you?"
It was a girl's voice calling his name. He heard that first and started, pushing up against the brick wall, scratching his hands in his mad scrabble to gain some purchase and maybe start running again. But then, a second or so later, he realized he knew that voice and, just maybe, there wouldn't have to be any running involved.
Almost frantically, Jack turned to look at the figure approaching him. He already knew it from the voice—a voice that managed to be a mixture of an Irish accent and New York, the speaker too stubborn to lose her brogue entirely—but recognized from the mane of wild curls barely tamed by a kerchief and the curious glint in her golden-green cat's eyes that Stress Rhian had been the one to stumble upon him at last.
But, he noticed gratefully, she didn't appear to have any mistletoe on her person and, looking more closely, her plump lips were the shame neutral shade as always. No lip paints for her.
Feeling as if his friend had past some sort of test, Jack nodded her way. "Afternoon, Stress."
She waved back. "I thought you'd be takin' advantage of the holiday and sellin' twice as many of yours papers today," she said, the surprise obvious. "What are you doin' around here?"
He leaned back against the brick wall as if he had nothing better to do on Christmas Eve except haunt this particular corner and watch as the hustle and bustle of Christmas in the city rolled by. "Nothin'," he said with a shrug, hoping that she hadn't noticed the way he jumped at her voice. "Finished sellin' early, didn't feel like fightin' the rush at the distribution center so I thought I'd take a walk. Nice to see you, too, by the way."
She had noticed too, but Stress had known Jack long enough now to know when to point out when he was lying or not; if she didn't, she'd be spotting his untruths any time they met each other. "Oh," she said, pausing to stand a few steps away from him, "I guess I just didn't expect to see you today." And then, because the thought had been on her mind and she was just dying to blurt it out, she added: "I got a present for ya."
"Really?" For a moment, Jack's outlook brightened. He turned to look at her again—beyond checking for the red lipstick and fingers made of mistletoe before, he hadn't noticed anything else really—and was surprised when he saw that she was empty-handed. He couldn't stop his suspicion. "Where?"
"Not here, silly. It's for tomorrow."
"You got me a Christmas present? What is it?"
"It's a surprise." She nodded, a hint of red dotting her pale cheeks; Jack thought it must be from the cold because, now that he thought about it, it was a bit nippy out. "I thought I'd bring it over in the morning," she said, which made Jack feel better. That still gave him until tomorrow to give her the combs he'd bartered from Dusty. In privacy if he could—none of the fellas believed him when he said she was just his friend.
And she'd gotten him a present, too! If he thought he could get her to spill, he would've tried but they both knew that was pointless. Stress would take any of her secrets to the grave if she wanted to and surprises were, to her, the best form of a secret. So he didn't say anything more, though the promise of a present tomorrow was certainly a lot more enjoyable than the threat of an unwanted kiss today.
So the two of them stood there then, Jack lost in thoughts of mistletoe and the baths he'd had to draw for Dusty to earn Stress's combs. Stress, on the other hand, was watching him closely, curious as to how, despite seeming to appear as if he was at ease, Jack kept turning to look behind him, beside him and in front of him as if, all of a sudden, one of Stress' Bottle Alley chums would appear out of nowhere.
After a few more seconds, she couldn't take it anymore. Clearing her throat, she asked: "Is something wrong, Jack?"
He shook his head, pulled from his daydreams, all of which seemed to include a rare smile from Stress when she saw his combs and a mystery package wrapped just for him in goddamn mistletoe. He was just at the part when he opened the box to find a tube of lip color when he realized she was saying something to him again.
Stress appeared more concerned than before. "I said: is there something wrong with you?"
"Why do ya say that?" he asked defensively.
Just that answer made her think he was the Jack Kelly she knew so well. "I don't know... maybe because ya keep lookin' at me like I'm gonna sprout another head or something. And that's not if you're checkin' behind ya for a goblin or whatsit."
So, he mused, she noticed that. Well, there was nothing else for it—
"It's not about goblins, Stress. It's about the..." And he leaned in, lowering his voice as if saying the word out loud invoked the mass of giggling girls, "... mistletoe."
The laugh that burst out of Stress, while nothing like a giggle, was loud enough to force Jack back to his slouched position against the brick wall. She had a lovely laugh, vibrant and alive; she rarely had the chance to use it but when she did, it was explosive. It almost made Jack laugh right along until it dawned on him that he would be laughing at himself then.
He clamped his mouth shut. Maybe he shouldn't have told her after all...
"Really?" Stress said, covering her mouth as her laugh subsided into a more ladylke sort of chortle. "You can't tell me that Jack Kelly is afraid of a wee bit of green?"
"It's not the green," he said, trying not to let his pout color his tone. "It's the pair of bright red lips that've been chasin' after it all day."
Stress's laugh died away at his comment. She narrowed her gaze, looking down her long nose at him. "And that's why you keep lookin' at me funny? You thought I was the type of girl to do that?" she said accusingly. "Just whip out some mistletoe and steal a kiss? I'm no thief, Cowboy."
Jack looked over at Stress again. She had a point. In the year and a half since he'd met her, stumbling upon her lost her first day in Manhattan, Jack could count the number of times he'd thought of her as a forward sort of girl on no hands. She was a friend of his, loyal and kind if a little too nosy for her own good—and the less said about her habit of jumping to conclusions, the better—but after her past followed her from Far Rockaway, Queens into Manhattan and he saw how affected she was by her own history, the idea of Stress kissing anyone seemed as foreign as Race actually coming up a winner down at the tracks.
He tried to think of it and couldn't understand why just the thought of Stress running around in red lipstick, waving mistletoe and chasing the fellas made his hands ball into fists at his side. Maybe, piped up a small voice at the back of his mind, because she wasn't chasing after him—but Jack silenced his nagging conscience with an unsaid threaten to soak the little voice if it didn't keep its mouth shut.
Oblivious to his inner conversation, she had her hands on her hips, rolling her eyes, her gaze fluttering upward as she waited for his answer.
"No, I guess not," he agreed at last, just a touch abashed at her indignation—and maybe a bit wistful, now that he thought about it.
Stress was a little mollified. She even spared a small smile his way. "All right then. 'Sides, so what if there is a bit of mistletoe hangin' over your head? You don't have to give or get a kiss."
"Of course you do!"
The answer seemed simple enough to Jack. "Well, yeah. It's... it's tradition."
Stress thought about that for a second. "You really feel that way?" she asked, a note of disbelief in her accented voice.
Jack could hardly believe what he was hearing. That was how traditions got started after all, people having a reason for doing something at first—though even he couldn't figure what was so great about mistletoe—and then other people going on and doing it every year because, hey, that's how it had always been done.
Having traditions were like superstitions, and anyone with some Irish blood in them like those two should know all about that. Back in the old country, there was a bit of milk on the back porch for the fairies and a horseshoe over the door to keep ill spirits at bay. You crossed yourself before you spoke, you spit to ward off the evil eye and, if you heard a banshee's cry, you ran for the hills in case it caught up with you.
Jack might not know what the penalty for ducking out on a mistletoe-induced Christmas kiss was but he was damned if he was going to find out...
"Traditions tradition," he said with a shrug. "I thought a girl like you'd get that."
Stress nodded, a queer look on her face. Jack though he struck a nerve there with her and was just beginning to think a kiss might've been preferable to the tongue-lashing he might get when her expression softened and she nodded again. "That's the funny thing," she told him simply, "I do." And then, "Hey, Cowboy?"
She looked up pointedly. His stomach dropped down to the dirt as his eyes lifted to where Stress's arm was pointed, high over her head—over his head.
On the edge of the overhang, right above the spot Jack had taken refuge in earlier, someone had hung one small bunch of mistletoe right there.
And all Jack could think was: How did that get up there? And how come I never noticed?
"Merry Christmas," Stress said, grinning wickedly as she leaned in while he was still preoccupied, marveling at the plant up above. The young Irish girl dared a quick kiss on his cheek before giggling and dashing away. She didn't wait to hear what he had to say about that—she'd gotten her answer with "tradition's tradition".
Jack felt the place where her lips touched his dusty cheek burn, or maybe that was the warm embarrassment rising up within him. She'd gotten him all right but, well, at least she wasn't wearing that lip color. No one else would know that she had.
Except... somehow he thought it might not be too bad of an idea to tell the other fellas that he'd been marked, too.
He rubbed his cheek with the flat of his hand, smiling to himself as he did. "Merry Christmas to you, too."
Huh. That's tradition for you.
End Note: Merry Christmas everyone, and Happy Holidays too!
- stress, 12.24.11