By Pegasus

Bird on Watch: Hunter

Goddammit, Kelly.

With slumped shoulders and a hollow sigh, I reached down to fix the frayed laces of my shoes and prepared to move out.

After the run around Kelly gave me today, I was ready to call it in. The sun had set hours ago and I didn't have it in me to pull a double shift today. Relief swept in quickly when he finally turned the corner on Duane Street and headed inside the Newsboys Lodging House. My task, I thought too soon, was complete.

Shoulda known better than to get my hopes up.

I guess I shouldn't be taking my frustration out on Kelly — I've been having a rough couple of days — but he wasn't helping matters with all the meandering he did today. He knew the birds were tracking his every move — Spot Conlon had told Jack himself. It crossed my mind that the Manhattan newsie was trying to shake me off. After all, Jack's got reason to be paranoid, what with that nasty Refuge warden chasin' after him all these months.

Dragon must've known Jack would be on the constant move. It was a job meant for a trained, trusted bird, someone with a streak of determination or someone who was damn stubborn.

I wasn't any of that, so I was surprised when Dragon himself shoved me awake before sunrise and gave me the assignment.

"Wha?" I'd managed, still half-asleep.

"Ya gone deaf, Hunter?" he had whispered harshly. "I said you got Kelly."

It was a test. I was still the new guy around here, having been a bird for five or six months, and these fellas, like most, weren't quick to put their trust in some stranger from out west. It might've been a gamble for Dragon to have me tail the Manhattan leader, but I'm good at what I do. Yeah, I know—I ain't known for my modesty. Can't say I was too happy with Dragon's timing. I'd made a promise to be someplace tonight, and I knew tailing Jack Kelly would make for a broken promise.

The day was painless enough, though slow. I barely had anything to tell Dragon aside from the observation that Jack and that David Jacobs seem to be getting along. He won't be too impressed by that report, but maybe he'll be pleased to be the first Brooklyn guy to know that the famous Swedish Meadowlark was officially hosting the newsie rally tomorrow night. Being at Irving Hall and catching a glimpse of Medda while Jack and Jacobs made rally arrangements was the one high point of the day.

Shaking off my thoughts, I almost missed the ominous black carriage sitting on the corner. Jack must've been off-guard, as he had confidently strode inside the lodging house. I dived behind a clutter of barrels, cloaking myself in its shadows.

Chancing a glance through the windows, I saw the back of Warden Snyder's head. Jack hadn't gone far — still visible by the door — and was being hushed by his pals. By the looks of it, Snyder was in search of Jack.

Kelly dared to clown around for a few seconds before running back outside. The smile he had displayed to his friends inside just moments before was nowhere in sight.

After pulling tight the laces, I signaled to the bird on watch in the area—think it was Arms today, I always forget—and took off after Kelly, his form shrinking quickly in the distance. I wasn't sure where Kelly was heading — maybe Medda's? A hopeful thought, but it was more likely that he was going to circle back to the lodging house after Snyder disappeared.

I scratched out that last thought when I saw Kelly's purposeful stride. He obviously had someplace in mind. We passed Medda's — too bad; I wouldn't have minded visiting the place again. I followed as we crossed Horace Greeley Square, and a shrill whistle broke through the relative silence of the night. I recognized the signature high tone and grimaced. Way to be subtle, Clam.

Jack's objective became clear to me when we were a few blocks away: he was actually making his way to the Jacobs' apartment. Amusement tugged at the corner of my lips as I wondered whether Kelly's feet were leading him to the apartment because of his newest best buddy, or because of his newest infatuation with Sarah Jacobs. I couldn't blame him if it was the latter — she was a pretty girl.

He stopped at the foot of the apartment's fire escape. Following a few steady breaths, Jack hoisted himself up the metal steps and softly ascended.

The Jacobs resided in a room on the top floor. They had several windows, two of them by the fire escape, both of which were open to let in the summer breeze and looked out from the children's partition. The layout of the place made the birds' jobs easy.

I knew I had to get up on the roof. Looking towards the darkened sky, I measured the best approach to the rooftop without raising Kelly's suspicions. My work was cut out for me. With one eye on Kelly almost at the top flight, I backtracked to the adjacent apartment and climbed, quietly, working hard to ensure my old shoes didn't clang loudly against the metal rungs.

I momentarily stopped my ascent when I saw Kelly had come to a halt outside the Jacobs window. He peeked in through the open windows, lingering a little longer on the second one — I'd bet money that was the window overlooking Sarah Jacobs — before steadily setting himself down on the metal stairway.

There were just a few flights left to the roof on my end. I summoned the last of my strength to hurdle up the fire escape and, once on the top of the building, trotted across to the Jacob's apartment rooftop.

We spotted each other immediately: Laces quirked her head to the side at my arrival and I gestured with my hand in return, telling her not to mind my presence. As she was the owl stationed here and because I was sure she didn't mind looking over Jack — not to mention I was damn tired — I gladly relinquished my post.

A potting bench rested along the wall of the roof, greenery sprouting from the small pots atop. Old clothes floated from the laundry lines. Several washboards were left along the sides and tin drums of various sizes were scattered all over the roof. A long bench with a clothes wringer stood in the middle of the roof. I decided that that bench was calling my name.

Slowly, I lowered myself on the bench, wary of creaking wood. Even though it was no spring mattress, being able to lie down like this after the exhausting day and two nights of restless sleep provided my body with a needed reprieve.

Laces remained hidden in the shadows along the ledge. She might have been taking a risk to stay so close to her target, as Jack was about six feet below, but I wasn't too worried. It wasn't much of a secret how infatuated Laces was with the Manhattan leader, but she knew how to do her job. Or maybe I was just too weary to be worried, because as soon as my head hit the hard wood beneath me, I felt my lids getting heavy.

Laces was trying to get my attention with a wave and a frown. I turned my head lazily to face her.

What? I mouthed.

Why are you still here? she asked, exaggerating her lip movements so I could read them. She must have expected I would relieve my post and head out. Normally, I would happily dash back to Brooklyn and fall into my own lumpy bed and scratchy sheets, but my body was having none of it today.

I'm tired, I explained simply.

So go back to the lodging house.

What part of "I'm tired" did she not understand?

I'm tired, I repeated with irritated emphasis. I cut short the conversation, crossing my arms and closing my eyes.

Boy, I was taking it out on everyone today. I didn't mean to, but… I mean, I know why I've been so damn surly and glum lately, but I couldn't understand why it was bothering me still. Three nights had already passed since Katherine and me fought. I should be over it by now.

Thing is, my overprotective sister knows about what I do. Well, she doesn't know what it is exactly — all she knows is that it ain't work that's exactly safe, seeing as I rarely make it home at nights, and that was enough reason for her to start a crying fit. I yelled, a lot, and I regret it, but she was making a big fuss out of nothing. I tried to make up for it, telling her I'd make it to her birthday dinner tonight.

But then Dragon gave me this assignment in the morning. I think he's noticed my halfhearted work the past couple of days. The dinner was over hours ago, I'm sure, and Kat's probably doing the dishes right now. I don't know why she bothered having a dinner with her friends when she could barely even afford to feed herself properly. I didn't help matters, with the little income I provided.

Great. More guilt.

One day, I was going to get us back west. I hated the city stink and seeing my sister suffer long hours sitting in front of a machine inside of a dark room. I just needed to save up enough money…

I rubbed at my temples, trying hard to ease the tension without letting it out as a frustrated sigh.

But there was a sigh, and it wasn't from me. The heavy, burdened sound came from below. Seeing as the only person below was Jack, I absentmindedly wondered what it was that was bothering him. Jack always put up a cheery front, so the weariness didn't seem to suit him at all. I remembered Warden Snyder back at the Duane Street lodging house. The dogged Warden had hit too close to home tonight, not to mention the chase he apparently gave Jack a couple of days ago. If there was anything Jack — or any of us street kids — hated most, it was being caged in, the way he'd been when he was sent to the Refuge. I tried to imagine how he felt now, having his past nearly capture and confine him again. I guess it was enough to warrant such a leaden sigh.

I don't remember falling asleep, but I must have, because the next thing I knew, soft, hushed voices were breaking through my slumber. It was times like these when I hated being such a light sleeper. I sensed the rising sun but didn't bother opening my eyes. Instead, I strained my ears to listen to the conversation that had woken me.

"Why didn't you wake us up?" came a gentle female voice. Sarah Jacobs, I registered vaguely.

"Well, I didn't want to disturb nobody." Kelly was up. Interesting, the guy's not known to be an early riser. "Anyway, it's like the Waldorf out here. Great view, and cool air."

A coy pause.

I had to struggle to make out the next part. "Go up on the roof."

Huh. The roof.

My eyes flew open. Oh, crap.

I sprung from my slouched position and saw Laces doing the same. She put a finger to her lips and hurriedly signaled me to follow her. Her sudden anxiety broke through the last remnants of sleep.

Clanking metal. My attention snapped to the fire escape. Kelly was coming.

We scrambled in long strides across the roof, pushing past the shirts and sheets hanging on the lines, and lunged behind a small nook, gathering our limbs in the cramped space.

We flew just in time, too, as we heard the sounds of feet landing on pavement. Kelly was on the roof. I caught some dragging and shuffling sounds, followed by a loud yawn. A crick of the neck and the spine and I assumed he was stretching out his back and arms, stiff from the night on the fire escape. More footsteps, more shuffling, followed by baffling huffs and grunts.

I raised a questioning brow at Laces who had a better view from her angle. She gave a small grin and punched the air in small, restricted movements, imitating Kelly's air boxing.

It wasn't long before the sounds of another pair of feet joined Jack's boxer's shuffling ones.

I ventured a glance. Sarah Jacobs had brought with her a basket filled with glasses, a bottle of fresh milk, and several bread rolls. The sight of food made my stomach twist greedily, reminding me that I hadn't had lunch or dinner yesterday.

"Are you hungry?" she asked Jack, approaching him timidly after setting down the basket on the same bench I'd spent the night on.

"Yeah," Jack answered.

"Good," she said with a smile, "because I made you breakfast."

Sarah removed a sheet from the clothesline while Jack eagerly picked a ripe tomato from someone's tomato plant. Looks like Kelly just couldn't keep those sticky fingers still. He rounded the bench and took a moment to take in the view before joining Sarah as she neatly laid the linen sheet and set the counter for breakfast. He grinned as he watched her. Lucky guy. The lot of us can only dream of a nice girl like Sarah Jacobs.

"Papa's so proud of you and David," she began, "You should hear him talking about Jack Kelly, the strike leader, who occasionally takes his meals with us."

"Well, this is one strike leader who's gonna be very happy when it's all over. Then I can get outta here and go to Santa Fe. I mean, there's nothin' for me to stay for, is there?"

Sarah's eyes flickered towards him. Hesitating at the question he posed, she got up and moved to the roof's ledge in an attempt to hide the disappointment evident in her face.

"You know you should see Santa Fe," Jack continued. "Everything's different there. It's all bigger. You know, the desert, and the sky, and the sun."

Right. From everything I've heard, Kelly's never been out West.

Sarah drew in a breath before turning to face him. "It's the same sun as here," she asserted gently.

Jack cast his eyes downward. "Yeah, it just looks different," he said quietly.

But I had to hand it to him — he had one hell of an imagination. Because he's right: the sky, the sun — it did look different out there. I have to admit I'm a little surprised by Sarah's response. Most girls I know got these romantic ideas about the west. She could've easily asked him more about Santa Fe, but she didn't. Looked like practicality ran in the family.

"I should… get ready for work," she said. Her smile faltered for a moment.

"Sarah," Jack called. "I'm just not used to havin' whether I stay or whether I go matter to anybody." He stood and moved next to her. They looked out onto the city as it began to stir, getting ready for another day. "You know, I'm not saying it should matter to you. I'm just sayin', um…" he trailed off. "But, does it? Matter?"

I couldn't see Sarah's face, but there was a soft laugh. And that seemed to be enough for Jack as he grinned back at her.

The pair spoke for a while longer until Sarah could no longer ignore the fact that she really did have to get ready for work. I picked out more small things about the upcoming Newsies rally — nothing new from yesterday — before Jack casually invited Sarah to the event at Irving Hall.

Me and Laces waited a few seconds after they disappeared down the fire escape together. The distinct sound of a whistle followed by another reached our ears: signals from our reliefs.

I was finally done.

We rose out from the cramped space. I squinted against the morning sun and turned towards Laces. It was the first time I really looked at her since last night, when I so nicely decided to ignore her.

Her expression was somber. I didn't have to be a genius to figure why.

"You heading to Brooklyn?" I asked, aware of having to report our findings back to Dragon.

"Yeah," she replied with a nod, forcing a smile.

Maybe it was that sunrise, the prospect of a new day, or the couple of hours of real sleep I got that cleared my mind, but I was finally feeling some positive energy, for the first time in days. It was time to stop moping around and start making amends. I already decided to give Kat a short visit before going over to see Dragon. And Laces here, well, I felt bad about last night.

"Hey, Laces. Wanna grab something to eat on the way? It's on me."