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February 2014

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newsies - kings, thieves, and exiles (part 3/3)

aww yeaaaah kids are you ready for more of these motherfuckin politics??, protip number 3: you can read this as social commentary but this actually works really well as a direct analogy to the differences between public/private BT trackers, canon anachronisms included but i'd like to express my stiff-lipped reluctance in doing so, pre-canon Jack is a parochial self-absorbed bully, one of canon's primary points in developing his character is ridding him of this, this chapter is about giving up the things you love for the things you want

The traffic over Brooklyn Bridge stank: horses, mules, people, all plodding across the river of shit that flowed underneath it. This was two too many times a lifetime now that Jack had had to be on this side of it, but he had unfinished business with Brooklyn still: he'd had to cut and run to save Jimmy McNulty's neck last night. But now the Bronx owed him, and Jimmy couldn't look him in the eye, so it hadn't all been a complete wash, at least.

Jack leaned carelessly against the railing, papers tucked under one arm. He wasn't really selling; no one crossing the bridge ever had the inclination to stop, even for a pape. Here was the one true no-man's land in all of New York, on this span of metal and masonry that separated them from Brooklyn City.

Some of Spot's boys eyed him from across the carriageway, slumped into their own papers, not really selling. Jack nodded his chin at them and grinned, a slow spread of teeth. They scowled back but avoided his eyes. Their man was late, and they were wasting precious peak hours keeping an eye on Jack Kelly. It said something wonderful about the marvel of Brooklyn discipline that not a single one of them had wandered off.

Jack hummed a saucy Vaudeville ditty to himself, smiled and dipped his head at a group of factory workers trudging past. "Buy a pape, mister?" he asked, mostly on the habit of doing so. They shouldered past him wordlessly, eyes never leaving the pavement. They were powerhouses of the eastern seaboard, these men and boys, the essence of what made this country great, and not one of them was ever going to make it off the factory floor.

Finally, in the distance, upstream along the river road, a lone figure approached. Jack squinted a bit in the glare of the morning to be sure, but he recognized that avicular strut anywhere. The boys across the street did too; one of them let out a groan of relief so loud that Jack could hear it even from where he stood. Jack lifted his hat and waved.

"There you are," he called, as Spot made his way up onto the walkway. They did the perfunctory greetings, though with, perhaps, less gusto than a grandstanding ought to start off with. "Kept me waiting thirty minutes, you did," Jack told him noisily. "I'll have you know that Roacher never kept a guy waiting, especially so close to home. If you're gonna be running things from now on, you oughta –" He stopped when he took in Spot's condition. His eyebrows rose. "You got blood on your shirt."

Spot's pale, unfocussed gaze drifted down to where Jack was pointing to the front of his left shoulder. He looked back up and blinked with feline unconcern. "It's not mine," he answered. One of his boys crossed over the street and handed him his hat and cane. Spot took them without breaking eye contact with Jack, and then jerked his head aside. So summarily dismissed, the boy and his pals dispersed. Spot stuck the cane into his belt and swept his hair up into his cap. He told Jack unapologetically, "I had business to look into."

"Yeah?" Jack grinned, all teeth now. "And how's business doing?"

Spot afforded him an imperious look. "What do you care?"

Jack shrugged. "Oh, I dunno," he said casually. "Just one guy lookin' out for another guy who's about to cross the floor, I guess."

Spot's look would've frozen hellfire. "He wouldn't join your little band of shit-for-brains if you were the last morons alive on earth," he snarled, some of that untouchable cool finally giving out under temper.

"Really?" Jack asked, drawing out his vowels into whines. He leaned his elbows back onto the railing over the river for the full effect of looking down his nose. "He stayin' with you?"

There was a brief and reckless moment where it occurred to Jack that Spot might just shove him, their deal and his promises and his own self-interest be damned, just because he was a touchy, over-reactionary asshole like that. Jack idly considered the prospect of drowning to death in the East River; he never could swim all that good, though maybe he wouldn't even make it out of the water; maybe the fall would take him out. The last time he'd saw his mother, after all, she'd had a crushed skull that looked like she'd took a nosedive off the top of the Pulitzer Building, not Aqueduct Bridge.

Spot glared at him, anger and self-preservation tying down his tongue. If Spot could've held the border at the bridge on his own at that point, he would never have even had to learn this boy's name: Jack Kelly was too clever by half and too smug by several more times; they would've never been friends, even if he hadn't been a smart-mouthed, yellow-bellied slickster from the wrong side of the bridge. But he couldn't, not so early yet when loyalties still faltered and doubts still circled and Roacher's boys still roamed the streets unchallenged. He had no need for friends right now, but he did need Jack Kelly.

"You just make sure you keep your promises, Jacky-boy," Spot said lowly, pitching his voice to a threatening register just below the rumble of the streets. "That's all I need from you."

Jack smiled and tipped his head in a sardonic bow. "As your Kingliness commands."

Spot scowled and rubbed his thumb over the brass Edwardian claw at the end of his cane. It bumped against the ground when he walked with it stuck in his suspenders like this, meant for someone older and taller than a boy half-grown like him. But to the victor went the spoils, and Spot wasn't about to give up the only thing Brooklyn recognized as an object of power just cos it didn't quite fit his leg stride.

"Roacher had the right idea, paying you off, Kelly," he intoned. "You're more trouble than you're worth."

"Oh, but Spot," Jack sang, lolling about on his feet like his joints were made of taffy. "Your friendship is worth so much more to me than a lousy buck-fifty at the end of the week."

"Yeah? That's funny," Spot snapped. "Didn't think the boys from The Journal took payment in friendship. What're you gonna do to keep 'em off my back, Kelly? I sure as hell don't need no carpetbagging punks trying to set up their own little fiefdoms when my back is turned just cos you couldn't keep up your end of the deal."

"I give 'em enough business on my side of the bridge," Jack said evenly. All his cocksure condescension thawed away, and suddenly, there was Jack, fair-minded, temperate Jack, best businessman in all of Lower Manhattan. He tipped his head curiously. "Why dy'a think I only got two hundred boys in my house?" he asked. "That's how many I can take care of, and that way, there's more than enough punters out there for all of 'em. Not everything's gotta be either a payoff or a soakin', Spot."

Spot bared his teeth and thought about his two thousand boys, every one of them whose lives and livelihoods were tied to his. He knew this wasn't how Queens ran their business, or the Bronx, and certainly not Manhattan – they had no leaders in their neighborhoods, no organization. In Brooklyn, everything was ordered. If one guy fell behind, didn't have a place to sleep, couldn't get enough to eat, it was his neighborhood's job to get him seen to. It was Spot's job to make sure that none of the neighborhoods were hanging anyone out to dry. It was everyone else's to let him lead, to let him decide who among them wasn't pulling his weight and how he should pay. Those were their rules.

Roacher had been slack on their enforcement, the last couple years of his tenure, and newsies from other cities had snuck across their borders, sold papes in territories that didn't have the punters for it, fled back home before they could be made to pay their fees. Neighborhood leaders got lazy, complacent, and the last winter, fifteen kids'd frozen on the streets because Roacher didn't cover for them; too busy selling out, lining his own pockets. New York didn't have that problem, because New York never knew how many guys didn't make it through a snowdrift. They had no one to care.

"That's not how we do things here," Spot replied evenly with only a modicum of disdain.

Jack rolled his shoulders. "Changes are coming, Spotty," he said matter-of-factly. "Your friend Racetrack's got the right idea. Diversifying. Brooklyn ain't gonna be a city much longer, you know."

Spot's expression was bored. "I'll deal with that when it comes."

"It's comin' sooner than you think," Jack told him bluntly. You didn't have to read the papers to know that consolidation was happening; the vote'd gone through years ago, and it was just a matter of time before referendum took effect. "How you gonna keep your boys in line then, when we're all gonna be part of the great City of New York?" he challenged. "How you gonna keep your end of the deal?"

Spot's was a cold little face stoically holding out, showing no weakness, missing the point. "I don't go back on my word," he said. "Unlike some guys."

Jack spread his hands disbelievingly. "Jimmy McNulty was gonna get through, no matter what you or me or both of us did about it," he said. "You know that. A guy like Jimmy's gonna get anywhere he likes."

Spot cracked his cane against the stones. To the side, a horse startled. "Then what good are you to me?" he savaged.

Jack lifted his eyebrows. "You think Jimmy or Jeff or any of the rest of them are gonna have business with you on the day to day?" he asked. "Hate to break it to you, Spot, but you ain't that special."

Spot glowered at him, but said nothing. Jack rolled his eyes. "Oh, don't you worry your pretty little head about my side of the bridge," he assured sneeringly. "I got things covered. But just remember –" he prodded a finger in Spot's direction "–you owe me now. I say I want Brooklyn's support on something, I don't want no bullshit from you. I call for you, you better come running."

Spot crossed his arms, gaze narrowing. "What the hell are you even gonna do?"

Jack shifted on his feet. "Like I said," he offered half-heartedly, "change is coming. You know there's gonna be a war soon?"

"Yeah, Jack," Spot bit out caustically. "Maybe over in Manhattan, being able to read's a big deal, but here we just call it examining the goods."

Jack shrugged. "War changes things."

"For newsboys?" Spot asked scathingly. "In New York?"

Jack made a vaguely patronizing gesture with the tilt of his head. "You gotta learn to think a little bigger, Spot. Especially if you're gonna be running a city – sorry, a borough – now."

Spot glared. Then he asked, hostility dripping from his voice, "You done?"

"Sure thing, Spot." Jack lifted his hand and waved it in front of his face in a flippant salute. Spot's lip curled nastily. Cowboy Jack would get his, one day. Spot wasn't the plotting sort; he didn't have the patience for it, but he could see it done.

The morning rush was ending, the sun approaching its zenith overhead. Heat bore down on them, stirred up the stink from the river below. Their business done, Jack lazed around for a couple minutes more, but only to show Spot he wasn't going to allow himself to be dismissed. Spot stayed and watched him, unwilling to be the first to turn his back. Grandstanding was a complicated process, full of unnecessary gestures and immovable pride.

Eventually, Jack stood from his sloppy slump against the railings and gathered himself together with immense amount of nonchalance. He stood there, straightening his papers for a moment longer while Spot counted the seconds, fantasizing on the sounds his cane might make coming down on Jack Kelly's smug, ugly mouth. But then Jack smiled touched his cap with a reasonable amount of civility, and swiveled on his toes to head back to Manhattan. Spot released the breath of anger he'd been holding, relaxed his shoulders. He had other things to do with his day than do the box-step with Cowboy Jack.

Jack wasn't more than ten feet from where he'd started out when he doubled back, long legs eating up the distance, that look back on his face. "Oh yeah, one more thing."

Spot grit his teeth and bristled. "What?"

Jack flashed his shit-eating grin. "I'd consider it a real personal favor if you'd let my new buddy Racetrack back in Sheepshead."

Spot held back the shot of fury that surged when Jack Kelly rolled his tongue around Race's name like that, and simply hissed, "What the hell does it matter to you?"

"Like I said," Jack simpered, his chin up in an insouciant angle, "personal favor. Besides," he added, leering like he was relishing some sort of secret, "he's one of mine now. I gotta make sure I'm takin' good care of him, right?"

"You piece of –" Violence flared behind Spot's eyes, crawled black over his vision. He had his switchblade tucked into the top of his boot; one flick of that, and then Jack Kelly would smile, oh he'd be smiling for good, ear to goddamn ear–

"Think of it this way," Jack said quickly, perhaps sensing that he'd pushed one step too far. "He'll be sleeping in Manhattan but he'll be back every day in Brooklyn to sell." Spot paused, and Jack, encouraged, continued smoothly, "Who knows? You might even see him around."

Spot didn't have the luxury of thinking it through, not with Kelly studying him sidelong like some curiosity under a magnifier. He didn't have time to consider the pros and cons, to weigh out what it might mean for his boys to see Racetrack around after he'd turned turncoat on them, what it might mean for him to have allowed it. All he could do is judge the suggestion for the solution Kelly offered: did he want Racetrack back in Brooklyn again?

"Fine," Spot said, and immediately cursed the obvious relief that sailed through his voice. He scowled harder to make up for it; maybe Jack Kelly hadn't noticed, couldn't call on this as another thing Spot owed him. Jack just grinned his frozen rictus grin. Spot glared back. "Anything else you want?" he snapped. "Can I get you a drink? A cushion for your fat pompous ass –?"

"No, no, no, Spot," Jack chastised primly, and Spot would've wanted to sock him now, if he hadn't already wanted to since their conversation began, "you gotta try to be friendlier. Me and you," he gestured between them, "we're buddies now. Neighbors, you know."

Spot took a deliberate step into Jack's space, crowding him, tilting back his face till they were nose to nose. Then he told him in his hardest, most dangerous voice, "How about you get your own goddamn house in order first, and then you tell me how to run my town, neighbor?"

Jack just rolled his eyes and batted beneath his nose like he'd smelt something offensive. He didn't step back. "See, that's the difference between you and me, Spot," he drawled. "I don't gotta get nothin' in order. They listen to me cos they want to, over there, not cos I make 'em."

Spot showed his teeth. "You and your two hundred lousy boys –"

Jack ducked his head to the side, over Spot's. "Don't look now, but I think that's Racetrack," he quipped. Jack waved. Spot spun on his heel. "Hiya, Race."

He stepped around Spot and circled nimbly to where Racetrack'd stopped, just at the foot of the walkway. Race's hair was damp and roughly combed; his clothes hung crooked and limp from his frame. Jack glanced at the brown stain of blood that spread along the back of his left shoulder, the tear in his shirt that stretched underneath his vest, then looked back at the matching stain on Spot's.

Racetrack frowned. "Jack," he said, surprise obvious in the purse of his mouth. "What're you doing here?"

Jack threw a glance sidelong to Spot, who was still stuck in place, that look of blank intensity frozen in his eyes. Then he smiled.

"Dropped by just to make sure everything was all right after shit went down yesterday," he said easily. "You left me in a bit of a lurch there, Race. Wasn't sure what became of ya."

Race shook his head and answered, but his eyes kept drifting everywhere but where he should've been looking. "Yeah, sorry about that," he said tiredly. "Things got, you know," he gestured, "complicated."

"Yeah?" Jack asked sunnily. "They still complicated?" He clapped the back of Race's neck, then stole a glance to see what sort of emotion passed into Spot's eyes.

"No," Race said, shrugging, and he didn't pull away. "No, they're pretty cut and dry now."

"That's good," Jack assured him. "That's good to hear. Hey," he said cheerfully, "you know, if we head back now, you can still catch the morning edition, make up for yesterday."

Racetrack returned his smile heavily. "Yeah?"

Jack grinned. "Sure thing." He pushed his papers into Racetrack's hands and nudged him along. "You go on though," he said. "I'll catch up."

Racetrack threw him a cautious look, over his shoulder, but he nodded, stuck his hands in his pockets, and trudged forwards.

Spot's eyes flickered back to Jack. Jack was surveying him watchfully, intent shrouded behind an expression of effortless good humor. "You didn't tell him," Spot accused, though he had no ground to stand on; he hadn't said anything either.

"No," Jack agreed lazily. "I think I'll save it for now. Let him settle in a bit. 'Sides," he added with a pernicious lilt, "he's good company."

Spot's knuckles gripped the head of his cane and went white. "Go put it up your ass, Kelly." Some unnamable emotion shuttered over his face before shuddering into stone.

Jack watched him a moment longer. Spot was everything you'd expect in a fourteen year old boy; Jack knew, because it hadn't been that long since he was that age himself. He had no courage that wasn't really just dressed-up recklessness, and he had no wisdom that he hadn't borrowed from somewhere else. There was a stubborn streak of immortality in him still, left over from childhood, tempered with an academic knowledge that death waited for no one's permission to snatch you up, but not the actual thing. He needed to care, but he didn't know how; he tried to own, but he'd never had anything. Most tellingly, he always wanted to go a step further than was good for him, just to prove that he would. Spot Conlon wasn't a man. He didn't have that burden in him.

Almost gently, Jack tried to tell him, "You gotta grow up." He met Spot's furious gaze and held it. Spot kept up for a moment, but when Jack's sincerity held under challenge, he ducked away, discomfited. Jack caught his eye again. This was beyond sniping and petty baiting. This was something Spot needed to know. "You got what you wanted, so now you gotta keep your eye on it, or else someone else'll take it from you," he continued lowly. "You gotta decide what's important."

A sour look passed over Spot's face, and at first it looked as if he'd just spit back something nasty again. But then his expression twisted and he murmured, "'When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child.'"

Jack blinked at him, disconcerted. "What the hell is that, poetry?"

"No," Spot answered steadily, holding eye-contact with a burning look. "It's the Bible."

Jack blew out a perturbed lungful of air. "Didn't take you to be the god-fearing type, Spot," he said, mildly astonished.

"I'm not."

Their eyes turned down the street to follow Racetrack as he shuffled across the bridge, though in truth, it was Spot's eyes that watched him, and it was Jack's eyes that watched Spot.

Jack had no love for this boy, and none, really, for Racetrack. In Spot, he had an ally, sharp-sighted, quick-minded, efficiently brutal, bought by debt and unclouded by sentiment. And Racetrack, well, he liked Racetrack. Everyone liked Racetrack, even the guys who didn't; he was good people. That, too, was power invaluable, put to the right use. They were parts of a bigger thing, and Jack found it – in the very least – refreshing, how clearly they both knew it.

But power wasn't just a proof of itself, wasn't just the things you could get with it, the things you could control, the people you could have it over. Power was other things too: things you could do, things you could change. Things you could give, that weren't in the reach of others to take.

If he let it, it would let him be kind.

"Hey," he decided. Calling, louder, "Hey, Race!"

Spot watched as Jack Kelly jogged down the bridge, watched Racetrack turn his head, and then his body, and shoved down for the second time in as many hours that vast and gaping feeling of unreciprocated loss; of prices paid, of futures made, of choices and debts and the fundamental differences in life that separated people. Shoved it all down so deep, it rooted in his feet, rooted him standing, fixed, on one end of that common bridge, one edge of his changing city, where he could see Racetrack as Jack joined up with him – the reflexive softening of his face as Jack caught him around the shoulders, the quiet humor in his smile.

Jack leaned down to say something into the space between their faces and then grinned, that wide, white, Jacky-boy grin. Racetrack stared up at him, and then Jack lifted his head, nodded his chin, once, in Spot's direction, and clapped Race on back. He laughed when Race flinched, and waved his hands in placating flourishes when Race clutched at his shoulder and chewed him out. Then Jack touched him again, more carefully this time, a light tap on the arm, and walked on ahead.

Racetrack stood in place, watching Jack go, for a moment, his body half-turned. He moved away, but then he stopped, seemed to hesitate. And in that moment, Spot didn't know what to do with himself, what he could do, what sort of price he'd have to pay to pride to just do what he wanted, to call out, to run, to be the one to catch Race around the shoulders, to be the one to draw that softness, that quiet smile, from his face.

Spot knew Racetrack Higgins was nothing, nobody, unremarkable; just some Black Irish bastard, fatherless, motherless, one of a million, dodgy and dingy and destined for a life of common destitution. He was short and he was sickly and he wasn't even very good at anything, not even gambling, despite what he liked to pass himself off as. He'd done nothing in his life; would, in all likelihood, do nothing. He'd go to bed and rise for some fifty-odd years and go into the ground without a single noteworthy deed to his name.

But in that moment, when he turned around, then, with his bruise-ringed eyes, his sloped spine, his pale and watery smile, when he looked Spot in the eye and nodded – in that moment, he was everything.

Spot stayed there a little while longer, even after Race loped away and disappeared into the masses, and let the merchants, the mule carts, the horse-drawn carriages pass him by. Let the sun beat down on him, let the dust of the city drift into his face, speckle his eyes. Stayed there for a while longer, looking out across the water, where he could peer into the teeming colossus of New York, where he could know with all confidence he had all of Brooklyn City behind him.

You guys are fab! Thanks for staying with me!

Can't ransom for comments any more, but any feedback remains religiously appreciated, as always.

DVD Extra: Notes/Research/Commentary/Dump