The red on his knuckles is bright. A sharp colour, thick and brutal,
His own blood, another’s blood.
“I’m sorry, Sir.” Will looks up, tearing his eyes away from his hands.
Mr. Norrington sighs. “It just won’t do. I cannot have my workers brawling on the factory floor. You know this, Turner.”
“Would you like to inform me of what you and Jenkins’ were exchanging blows over?”
Will returns his gaze to his hands, looking down and away from Mr. Norrington’s disappointed face.
“No, I thought not. Just like you wouldn’t answer when I asked you about your fight with Cabell. Two fight’s, Turner, two within the last month.”
Will silently adds three more to that figure but doesn’t reply.
Mr. Norrington rubs a hand across his forehead. “Will,” his voice is softer. Slightly. “You aren’t a fool. You know what the alternative to working here is. I cannot keep you on if you are going to break rules and scuffle on the floor with the other workers.” He steps closer to Will, and for a moment his hand hovers as if he is going to touch Will, gently, on the face. “I would not wish the workhouse on my worst enemy, let alone a boy I know to have a honest heart and his mother. Do you wish to go there?”
“No.” Will shakes his head. “Of course I don’t. Of course not.” His bruises are starting to throb, and he knows blood is slowly dripping from his hand onto the carpet.
“Then you must see that this behaviour must end.” Mr Norrington steps back around to his side of the desk. “I’m not blind, Turner, I know the other men provoke you. And I know that my refusal to dismiss you has not gained you any friends. But you shall have to rise above all their taunts, and not let your temper lead you into any more frays.”
“Yes, Mr. Norrington. I know.” Will moves towards the door.
“This is your last warning, Will. You know that, don’t you?”
“Yes.” He pauses, one hand on the doorknob. “I know.”
His pay will be docked. Again. Recompense for the disruption he’s caused. And he can’t complain, not really. He should have been booted out of job and home, not just had a few pounds deducted from his wages.
But it stings.
And telling his mum is not something he’s looking forward to.
But the walk back to the house in the thin afternoon sunlight after so many months of seeing nothing but the dark of the night is something to savour.
The late winter sun barely penetrates the thick smoke and soot of the city, and the shadows are already growing long, but, still, it is light and he can imagine the snowdrops, delicate beneath barren trees, in bloom back home, his old real home.
It’s almost enough to make him smile.
His mum is neither amused nor surprised. She barely says anything, and Will wonders if her anger will come later. Or perhaps her tears.
There is no money for their creditors this week.
Not unless another miraculous bounty comes their way.
The fire is slowly dying out, and his stomach is near empty and he can still hear his mum pacing back and forth upstairs, and Will lies there, wrapped in a threadbare blanket before the hearth, one hand squeezing a small scrap of red fabric tight.
A handkerchief. A vivid crimson red handkerchief.
The morning after Jack’s arrival he’d woken cold and alone, the blanket all twisted up and his belly growling with hunger. There was no lingering warmth from where Jack had lain beside him, tangled up with him.
Nothing to say he’d been there at all.
Nothing but a small pile of bright guineas on top of Jack’s red, red handkerchief.
Will yawns, curls up tighter with just the tiniest shiver, and closes his bruised fist harder around the square of red.
Jack presses the heel of hand to his head. He leans back against the wall, the rough stonework scraping through the fine linen of his shirt to the softer skin of his shoulders.
It could have gone worse.
It could have gone far worse.
Jack's seen what happens when jobs go wrong. He can remember blows and threats and fearful moments when it were as if the sky had turned red and the day of reckoning had dawned.
And this? This is just a stumble.
No more than that.
Just a stumble.
He takes a deep breath, flooding his lungs with cool night air.
Ultimately, and Jack has learnt that ultimately is often all that matters, the night had gone well. He had pocketfuls of shiny glitter, all fat rubies and heavy gold. He had not been caught, not even recognised. And if it had been a near miss, well, that's exactly what it was, a near miss.
He shivers, Spring is running late and he can still feel the bite of Winter in the breeze.
His current lodgings are in one of the seediest parts of London. Admittedly there are many seedy parts of London to choose from, but Jack has a good eye for where the riff-raff outnumber the honest folk and where he and all his proclivities will go unnoticed.
It's a small suite of rooms rented out by a man who, judging by the thick band of scar tissue about his neck, had a rather close call with the hangman.
Jack doesn't trust the man.
But then, the man doesn't trust Jack either.
Morning finds Jack under a stack of blankets. He stretches and shifts and twists and turns but it does him little good- sleep is an evasive bugger and determined to elude him.
He thinks of how he should have visited Scarlet before retiring.
Of the warmth of her body.
Of the deep dark red of the sheets he knows she robbed and threatened and blackmailed to obtain.
Of slamming into her until all the tension and sharp passion was wiped from his being.
But even in his imaginings (which must, it has to be admitted, give him phenomenal powers of stamina and recovery) there is something vaguely unsatisfactory about it.
There is something lacking.
Perhaps it is freshness.
Perhaps it is simple old-fashioned novelty.
He cannot count the times he has rented Scarlet for a space of minutes or hours, though he might be able to count the shillings it has cost him. And he knows there is nothing new to be discovered within her embrace.
So, someone new.
Jack hears the rest of the household begin to rouse. He pulls the blankets high up over his head and closes his ears to the morning ablutions and getting of breakfasts.
There is the new fair-headed boy at the Crown. Or the tall woman who's started to linger at the corner of New Street. Even Geoffrey from who he stole a great measure of worldly goods a scant few hours ago.
All are likely candidates for his imagination, but as his hand drifts down and his breath shortens he finds his mind filled with the lad.
Bill and Aggie's boy.
He dreams of Will on Scarlet's dark deep sheets. Of his skin flushed. Of him gasping and biting at his lip.
Of pressing words into tender salty flesh, imparting language with lips and tongue.
Of eloquent sighs.
And pounding into him so hard, so long, so fiercely that, for the boy, walking, when all is done and past, will be a raw, aching impossibility.
Jack wakes still shuddering and struggles upright out of his nest of blankets. "Oh, bloody buggering fuck."