The cold wind blew off the sea, tousling Jake’s hair. He carried the air of someone coming home, if he knew where home was. His skin was a little weather beaten, tanned in a way no one in London was, unless they had been on the sea for prolonged periods of time. Jake had seen everything, but he was still glad to be home.
A bird chirped overhead, and he glanced up, trying to find it. Instead, he locked eyes with someone in a window.
It was a boy, around his age, pale and hair that shone like bronze. He looked almost bored, fingers drumming on the windowsill as he watched the people pass, but once Jake’s eyes caught his, he seemed to light up. Through the window, Jake could see a sort of pinkness come to his freckled cheeks, making his eyes shine, even from two stories below on the cobblestone street. He was beautiful, almost, and he raised his hand in a wave. Jake waved back, even daring to pull his hand out of his jacket pocket, despite the cold.
Then a tiny smile tugged at the boy’s lips, and Jake felt an odd feeling in his chest. He knew he wasn’t alone— he’d lived on a ship for years, but this was new for him. He hadn’t expected to feel like this. Maybe it was the fact that he hadn’t seen many people other than grizzled sailors for ages, but that boy seemed to strike him down like a gunshot to the heart. He found himself grinning back. He looked away, finally, and made his way to the tiny boarding house down a side street, head filled with images of the boy’s smile.
When he fell asleep, he thought of him, in a way he’d never thought about anyone before. He was with him in the little room, sitting by his side. He heard his laugh, his voice, his innermost thoughts, running his fingers through the boy’s curls, pressing his face against them and curling around him. He wanted to keep him safe, for as long as he could. It was an odd thing to think, but something in the boy’s gaze made him feel protective.
Every day, he made it a point to pass the window on his way to find work at the shipyard. He found himself looking for the boy, who, more often than not, was at the window. He barely moved, once Jake thought about it. One day, when passing, he saw the window open. After the boy glanced to the left, to the right, he tossed something down, flashing in the pale light of late afternoon. Jake reached out his hand, catching it in his gloved hand. He opened it, revealing a small key in his palm, small and bronze like the boy’s hair. He glanced up just in time to see the boy’s eyes widen with what looked like fear, before his head whipped around and he disappeared from the window.
That kept him up most of the night, turning the key over and over in his hands. Was the boy in danger? Was he trapped? A woman on the street had stopped him once, pointing at the window. “The boy never leaves. He stays there all day.” He hadn’t believed her, considering the fact that she looked homeless and slightly deranged.
The next time Jake passed, a man was at the door. He looked important, like he knew his place in the world, and he liked looking down at all the useless people gathered around him. He glanced up to the window, seeing the boy’s little smile. He had to get into the house somehow, but how was he meant to do that? Then the man beckoned him inside, and he had no choice but to go.
“You pass by my humble abode often, don’t you, boy?” The man, who had introduced himself as the Honorable Judge Quip, said, pouring himself a glass from some bottle of alcohol. Brandy, possibly. Jake’s exposure to alcohol was mainly rum, as it didn’t turn easily on a ship.
“Yes, sir.” He said, always polite. He’d been told that for years— people are more likely to help you if you help them. And if he could get close to the boy’s father, well, that was just an added bonus.
The man turned, fixing his bright eyes on Jake. They weren’t soft sky blue, like the boy’s, they were cold and sharp and calculating. “You work at the shipyards.” It wasn’t a question, judging by the cold sneer on the man’s face as he looked Jake up and down, taking in the rope-burned fingers and weather-beaten skin. Jake nodded anyways.
“Any particular reason you take this route? There’s many shortcuts to the London docks, you know.”
Jake swallowed. “I, uh, don’t know the way, sir. I’m not from here.” This felt like an interrogation.
“It would have nothing whatsoever to do with the boy you wave to every day, would it?” The judge set down his glass with a clink.
Jake felt his face go white, his mouth dry and chalky. He swallowed again, as if that would help anything. “Sir, I don’t know—“
“You gandered at my ward, Jeremiah. I know you do, I see you do it.”
There was a mix of emotions in Jake’s chest. Elation— he knew the boy’s name, now. Jeremiah. It fit him. But he felt a swell of panic, too. “I meant no harm.” His fingers closed around the bronze key in his pocket.
The judge’s smile was tight, as if it was moments away from tugging into a snarl. “I’m sure you didn’t.” In a flash, Jake felt a hand at his throat. The man, though rather thinner than Jake was, was surprisingly strong, his fingers constricting his breathing. “Harm or no harm, know this. If I ever see you on this street again, you will live, but not for much longer. Take one step towards that doorway, and I’ll make certain that my little friend will ruin that pretty face of yours.”
A smaller figure stepped out of the shadowy doorway, a malicious grin on his face. He was short and stocky, much shorter than Jake was, but barely older than he was. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen. The fingers squeezed around his throat again, and he had to try not to cough. Then, with a flick of the judge’s head, Jake was dragged away.
The lightheadedness from the asphyxiation made it easy for the smaller boy to drag Jake to the side door, pitching him forwards into the alleyway. “The judge was kind to let you go.” He said, eyes flashing maliciously. Jake tried getting up, but a blow to his gut knocked him to his hands and knees again. He coughed, trying to get a breath. “I won’t kill you just yet, I’m just giving you a nice little parting gift.” Another blow, then another, and another. Through the pain, Jake could hear something crack. Whether it was a rib, or something on the cobblestones, he wasn’t sure. What he was sure of was the blood coming from his lips as he coughed.
A harsh hit to his back, almost seeming like a blade, knocked him flat on his face. Jake hadn’t taken a beating this hard in ages. He turned himself onto his back, only to see the boy, pointing at him with a bloody cane, looming over him. “Crawl away, and don’t come back, you filthy queer. Or I’ll break your nose next time.”
Then he was gone, leaving Jake staring up at the cloudy grey sky, head spinning and body aching. His eyes slid towards the house, only to see a flutter at the curtain. He met the eyes of the boy— Jeremiah— and managed a weak smile that faded into a grimace. The boy looked upset, biting his lip. His fingers brushed against the window, as if contemplating opening it, before he pulled away.
Jake pulled himself to his feet, using the wall as he stumbled. He looked up at Jeremiah at the window, before looking around and holding up the key. “I’ll be back for you. I promise.” He said, or more, mouthed.
Jeremiah shook his head, looking almost panicked, but Jake was certain. He wouldn’t stop until he had Jeremiah safe and sound with him, away from that judge, his guardian, and Jake could hold him close and protect him. He’d made a promise, and he wasn’t one to break them.