Two weeks passed, two solid weeks without a sign or word from Rockefeller.
The Newsies stayed on high alert, still protecting the theater and Talia with what numbers they had, even though they were few compared to the powers of the Rockefeller family and their connections. Spot stayed in Manhattan while his boys crossed the bridge every day to see him and the other Newsies, only to return to Brooklyn at night and to sell papers.
Jack placed David in charge of the Newsies temporarily while he stayed with Talia. Each night, David would climb through Medda's window to say hi and give reports. And he would return to the Newsies in the morning and they would bombard him with questions about Talia.
The weather began to turn and Talia's body was making slow progress. Medda helped her bathe every day, brushed her hair, and soon she was able to dress in regular clothing. She could walk about the apartment, stand for longer periods, and she was bound and determined to conquer the flight of stairs.
Jack helped her every day, holding her waist, waiting for her to dry out in pain and grab his arm. That's when he knew she couldn't go any further and even if she wanted to, he wouldn't let her. When they began two weeks ago, she could only make it down to the third step, then the fourth before crying out and cursing under her breath, clinging to Jack. He would carry her back up to Medda's apartment. She would rest and would be ready to try again within the hour.
"Quit pushin' yourself and quit bein' stubborn," he growled at her as she tried to get past him.
Her gray eyes flared wildly, "Says Jack Kelly, the King of Stubborn."
"Talia, just wait a little longer, huh?" Kid Blink pleaded from her side, glancing at Jack. "Ya don't want to fall."
"Hate ta see her with a broken leg," Race muttered. "She'd still kick all our asses…"
Spot, who was leaning against the wall near the door with his arms crossed, glanced at Race and nodded solemnly; Talia was the fiercest girl he'd ever seen.
And she wasn't budging from her place in front of Jack. And he wasn't moving from the doorway.
"I won't stand by and let ya kill yourself," Jack said darkly, staring into her eyes. "Ya need ta rest."
He couldn't take it, helping her fight her own body only to make her weaker than before.
"I will not sit and rot in this apartment!" she shouted, her long hair falling on either side of her face as she panted. She hid her wince well but he still saw it.
His jaw clenched and he could almost read her mind, see her thoughts appearing clearly in her eyes: if she could climb up and down the stairs, she would be able to dance.
"Get out of my way, Cowboy," she growled.
Without saying a word, he turned and threw open the door, letting it slam against the wall. He wrapped his arm around her waist roughly, dragging her through the doorway and to the top of the stairs. Her feet moved too slowly to keep up with his strides, the pain between her legs searing her, and she almost fell when he let go of her. She stumbled against the railing and the guys gathered at the door, shouting at Jack.
"Jack, man, take it easy!" Kid Blink shouted as he helped Talia.
Jack bounded down the stairs and stopped half way, his expression hard as stone as he turned to look at her and the guys on the landing above.
Jack pointed to his best friend, "You, shut up and get away from her. You," he pointed to Talia. She glared at him with pure hatred.
"C'mon," Jack barked loudly, beckoning her with his hand. "C'mon! Ya think ya can do it, then c'mon."
Talia clung to the railing, looking at the stairs. She stepped down, her hands tight as vices on the aged wood.
"Jack, cut it out," Race said, his body tense as he watched her lean against the railing. "Ya know she's crazy enough ta do it, ya moron."
"Shut it!" Jack and Talia shouted simultaneously.
"Jesus," Race's eyes were wide as he looked back at Mush and Spot. Their eyes were wide too.
Jack turned back to Talia, looking up at her shaking body. She made it to the third step and stopped. She was panting, wincing, her legs clenching.
"C'mon, I thought ya wanted this!" He shouted.
She shut her eyes tightly, ignoring the pain. She knew what he was doing: pushing her, wanting her to give up.
But her body would give up miles before her mind: she started to take another step but he saw that she couldn't. She was still too sore from their attempt from earlier.
Jack watched her for a moment before slowing climbing back up the stairs to her. He put his hand on her thigh, pushing her back to the step she was standing on.
"See?" He said gently as he looked into her watery gray eyes. "Ya can't, Talia."
"Yes I can," she hissed, her voice choked.
"Not right now," he said. "I know ya want ta be betta but ya can't push yaself." He stepped up to the step below hers and laced his fingers through her dark hair, his palm resting against her cheek. He lifted her face, making her eyes meet his.
"Not right now," he urged, his face close to hers.
She breathed heavily and after a long stretch of silence, he knew she had given up on fighting him. He helped her back into the apartment and she didn't mention the stairs again.
Over the next few days, Medda's apartment transformed: the dining area was turned into another bedroom, closed off by wooden partitions, and Medda slept on Talia's old bed. Talia argued that it should be her and not Medda sleeping in the dining room, but Medda's hard and insistent gaze made her quiet.
"Besides," Medda said with a sly grin, "You need more privacy than I do."
She winked at Jack and he looked at her incredulously. She smiled at the blush on his face.
One night, sick and tired of being angry with her body, Talia offered to cook everyone dinner. They protested, said she should rest but she yelled at them.
"I'm tired of everyone fussing," she hissed, her Russian accent still deadly and beautiful as ever. "You're worse than her," she said, glancing at Medda. "I'm going to cook, and you are all going to like it."
They couldn't help but snicker and she smiled and laughed with them. They knew she was tired of being tired, lying around and waiting for her body to heal. She was restless and they were only too happy to entertain her, as long as she was distracted.
Kid Blink and Mush returned from the market with the ingredients for Talia's dinner and with them came Spot, Boots, Snoddy, Specs, Jake, Pie Eater, and David.
"We heard you was cookin'," Snoddy said with a handsome grin.
"Can't ever resist a free meal, bunch of bums," Spot said as he winked at Talia.
David went to Talia and handed her a bundle. Talia removed a corner of the tightly rolled napkin and smelled the fresh bread.
"My family sends their best," he said, smiling angelically.
She felt more at ease with David around, always so calm. Talia kissed David quickly on the cheek, "I'm happy you're here, David."
He blushed and shuffled over to the guys on the couch. They slapped him on the back and shouted for him to take a swig of the whiskey bottle that was being passed around, curtsey of Medda's secret medicine cabinet.
"How goes it, Jack," David said, his eyes tired from the day's work.
Jack looked at him for a long moment before sighing and smirking in return.
"It goes," he said, glancing at Talia in the kitchen. Mush was helping her peel potatoes.
The apartment was loud and full of shouts and laughter, stories and jokes. Soon Jack lightened up and was laughing along with them. Talia hadn't seen him so carefree in what seemed like months. They sat around in the living room, eating the thick beef stew and bread, feeling comforted. Talia laughed too; the Newsies may have had dark things on their minds but they knew how to put up a good front to distract her and Jack. They were an excellent medicine.
Race got up to help himself to a second bowl, laughing at Snoddy's story; last summer, Snoddy and Kid Blink stole fish from the market and had hidden them in their shirts to get them home.
"Worst idea ever," Snoddy said, smiling and shaking his head at Kid Blink who was rolling.
"Worst smell ever," Mush said. He turned at Kid Blink and smacked him, "Ya smelled up the bunk room for a week!"
Laughter erupted again but as Race looked down, his smile faded. Lying on top of the ice box was a newspaper, the headline and the picture under it catching his attention.
"'ey, Medda," he called. "Ya get this today?"
Medda looked up and beamed from the couch, "Yes, sir." But as she read his face, the smile fell from her face. "What's wrong?"
The laughter died and everyone looked at Race. His face was pale.
Race shuffled over to the back of the couch, looking down at Medda's blue eyes. He glanced up at Talia, swallowing nervously.
"Well, I guess we know what Rockefeller's been up to," he said as he turned the paper around, holding it up for the others to see.
Jack's face went hard.
"Married?" Boots said incredulously. "Who'd be stupid enough-"
Talia stood and ripped the paper from Race's hand, her eyes scanning the story. The headline read: TWO FAMILIES BECOME ONE, PULITZER TO JOIN ROCKEFELLER EMPIRE.
"Now he really is untouchable," Spot said darkly, glancing at Race. "A Pulitzer and a Rockefeller? There's nothin' he can't do."
She looked at the black and white photo on the front. A girl wearing an elegant wedding dress was clinging to Garrison's arm. Her eyes were sparkling, just like her foolish smile. There were people around them, smiling and laughing as they held up champagne glasses. Garrison was dressed in a tux and smiling coolly at the camera, his eyes emotionless.
She remembered those eyes so clearly…as if it had only been hours ago that he had come to her bathroom. She remembered the look on his face as he had pushed her into the mirror, her head cracking against the glass. He'd been so calm. The way he had touched her, his hands greedy…he had wanted to be the first of the many to follow.
Talia glanced at the girl's hand in the picture, seeing her ring.
Talia blinked and looked around the room, not wanting to turn around and see the eyes staring at her.
She felt a strange feeling of betrayal and stupidity. She had trusted him once…as much as she could have. She had known him for two years, not including the months prior when he had just been a wealthy boy with father's money, looking for a good time. But he knew much more about her than she had known about him. And the thought made her sick. He had used her, in every way possible. She suddenly felt more naked than ever before. The eyes in the picture seemed to be looking right at her, seeing everything.
But she had used him too; he'd been her ticket out of the streets. She had climbed into his world, not caring how he felt and only cared that she was saved from her filthy bed. But he won. He had used her and now he has a young clean wife, another tool in his hands.
And he left Talia to rot. For all he knew, she was still being raped and beaten in her dark cage.
"She looks so happy," she muttered, her Russian accent lethal. She turned to Medda who was watching her silently.
Talia's hands shook, feeling ghosts of memories eating away at her. "I wonder if she knows his first born is at the bottom of the bay…"
She ripped the newspaper and dropped it on the floor, her eyes empty. The boys only stared at her.
Medda stood and went to her, taking her by the arms. She looked into Talia's eyes and saw the fierce tears that shone there. Such hate.
"You can start over now," Medda said gently, smiling sadly, her blue eyes crinkling. "Don't you see? He has forgotten all about you. And now you can forget all about him."
Medda took Talia's face in her hands, "Darling, you don't have to hide anymore."
Talia regarded her friend for a moment, realizing that all this time, she hadn't just been lying around, waiting for her body to heal: she had been hiding. She flinched every time a door opened, refused to look into a mirror, and hated to wake up in the dark, afraid she was still back in that horrible room, screaming until her throat was raw.
Talia turned to look at Jack, everyone else melting away. He was sitting on the couch, staring straight ahead of him with his fingers laced together in front of his face as he leaned on his elbows.
All this hiding and running…she was tired of it, and tired of dragging him along with her. She was tired of building on top of a worthless life with more sadness and pain. She wanted to leave it all behind, start over. The girl named Talia would never be safe, would never be free from the memories that plagued her. The girl Talia was wounded beyond repair and would never be whole. And she had made her that way.
She thought back to the gray morning on the docks when she had jumped into the harbor. She realized she had never been pulled out; she was drowning and he was drowning beside her. She couldn't do it to him anymore.
"Jack," she said emotionlessly.
He looked up at her, his dark eyes guarded.
She looked at him, his handsome face, and when she spoke, her voice was thick and low, "I don't want to be Talia anymore."
His brow furrowed.
She could leave the pain behind; all her life she had tried to cover up her past, only to have it with her, haunting her, dominating her. She was tired of it, tired of it weighing him down, dragging him to the bottom. They could be so much more.
Jack stood up slowly and approached her, reading her. Kid Blink, Mush and the others watched him gravely, still hearing Talia's bitter words in their ears.
Jack stood in front of her, reading her. She looked so tired.
"I don't want to be her anymore," she said, her eyes flickering between his.
He looked into her eyes, hearing her fierce unwavering voice full of conviction and strength. She was serious.
She read his dark eyes. They were sad.
He waited a moment, putting his hands into his pockets and looking down, thinking. He raised his head and met her eyes.
"So, don't be," he said huskily.
"Are you sure you want to do this, my darling?" Medda asked for the fifth time. "It's so long and beautiful…."
"Medda," she warned. "If you won't, I will."
Medda slowly put the scissors around the beautiful dark locks and closed her fingers together, cutting off the ends of her friend's hair. The hair fell with each cut, covering the floor at her feet. Medda kept cutting, watching her in the dresser mirror, and the locks drew up her back, to her shoulders where she wanted it. After a few little snips here and there, Medda stopped.
The young woman looked at herself, her hair just falling below her shoulders. She looked completely different.
"Wow," Mush said, smiling at her from the doorway. David, Kid Blink and Spot were watching from behind him and their eyebrows rose in approval.
"A new woman," Race said, smirking.
She ran her fingers through it, "…there's so much of it. Medda, there's more than before!"
Medda laughed, "No, it's just free, my dear."
Jack watched the girl in the chair carefully. Her hair curled gently at the ends, gracefully framing her face and brushing the bottom of her throat. Her eyes were wider, shadowed, and she looked even older. She looked like someone who was fully aware of what she did with her glances, her parted lips. As his eyes drank in the image of her, he thought about what she used to look like months ago: she had been a girl trying to be older, stronger, someone playing a part. Now, she looked like a woman.
She turned to him and her eyes fluttered up to meet his. His body tensed and his blood burned.
"Yeah," he said roughly after a long moment, nodding and looking away from her, "Looks good."
"Okay, so, say it again…?" Kid Blink asked, scratching his blonde hair. "Eye-rah?"
"Ira," she said, her accent dripping from her lips, rolling the r as if she were purring.
"Ee-rah," Kid Blink said. Then Mush. The guys each said it and she smiled at them; their accents made it sound so New York.
She looked at her reflection again, seeing Jack over her shoulder, leaning against the wall.
She was a new woman with a clean slate. Or, at least, she could pretend she did until she forgot about Talia. She looked at Jack again, his eyes on her face.
"Ira Volkov," she murmured.