‘John.’ Black Jack draws the syllable out into a long, sad drawl. ‘Don’t make me tell you what the theatre folk will do to you. Because those are things that should not be dwelt on, especially on a fine afternoon like this when all I want to do is speak of friendly matters.’
‘Sorry. I just... I don’t know.’ John twists his hands together in his lap. ‘Perhaps they’re not as bad as you think. You’ve said before that it’s not part of your world, that’s why you can’t help me, so you can’t really know. And you’ve said before that rumours are lies that people want to believe. You’ve told me that I am scared of nothings. I don’t want to be, any more. I want to be brave like you.’
The boy has the most cursed ability to remember every word Jack has ever spoken!
With most people, Jack’s arguments will leave them doubting their own name, but John has such a stubborn certainty about some things. Jack has learnt better than to press.
Not yet, anyway, when he has other tricks to try first.
‘And you said that you were going to earn coin and pay back all the kindness I’d given you. I also recall you saying, on several occasions, how much you liked being with me, and that you wanted to learn from me. Is all that forgotten now? I took you to one play, and you’ve decided that boys in dresses suit you better than I do?’
John’s mouth opens and closes, his eyes darting around, his hands clench desperately.
Jack finds he cannot look at John. Instead, he stares over at the boys hitting the archery targets.
He needs to ensure his victory, make certain the other will be too terrified to ever wander off on his own.
Jack forces himself to look back at those blue eyes, wide and pleading.
He grits his teeth. He has more sense than this. And it isn’t pure selfishness! John’s beauty won’t keep him safe on the stage. His quietness and ignorance will get him used and turned into coin wherever he ends up. He’s better off with Jack than with some strangers who’ll leave him friendless and broken. And Jack will go to Bedlam rather than see any other grow rich from his treasure. Excepting Moll, of course.
But the things he could say to hurt John, to keep him close, to keep control of him, dance out of sight. For the first time in memory, Jack realises he is unconsciously stuttering over his words.
‘What I’m meaning, Fair One, is that... I need you by my side. You bring me luck and once I train you, you’ll be a help to me like none other could be. You and I are good together, aren’t we?’ He stands up, stretches, trying to shake away his uncertainty, and offers a hand to John.
John pauses for a long moment, gazing again at that fixed spot, off to the side. Then he slowly shakes his head.
Jack’s stomach constricts. Bile rises to the back of his throat.
John is so light, it’ll be no effort to drag him along, but then...
The other slips his small white hand into Jack’s calloused one.
‘We are good together.’ The Fair One smiles, looking down at Jack’s boots rather than into his face. ‘I will be of help to you.’
Black Jack swallows his moan of relief, turning it into a stream of words without knowing what he is saying, something about what a fine apprentice John will be to him. He hauls him up, and the boy leaps to his feet, jumping with the joy of living.
‘I’ll be my best for you, Jack,’ the boy says.
‘I know you will.’
Black Jack turns back towards the city, back to Moll’s.
‘I’ll make the coin I owe you, as quick as I can.’
‘Ay, I don’t doubt.’
‘I won’t bother you with questions about the theatre anymore.’
‘I’m sure we can go to a play again.’ Never, he thinks. ‘But I still have to take you to the sea. I promised, didn’t I?’
John giggles, covering his mouth with his hand. ‘You didn’t, you just told River Robin that you had.’
‘See, that’s a promise, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter when or how I said it, just that I am now bound on my honour to be the first one to take you, and you are bound on your honour to let none other accompany you before I do.’
He nudges John’s ribs with his elbow, then carries on speaking, making the ocean sound like the most wondrous place in the world. And while he speaks, he truly believes there’ll be nothing more precious than watching John’s face as he gazes on the sea’s eternal expanse for the first time.
But there is an ache beneath his skull, as if nails have been struck through the bone and into his brain.
Things will change between them, and soon.
It’s the way it has to be.
The way it was always going to be.
John will change; it’s impossible that he’ll survive otherwise. And in all likelihood, when that change comes, the Fair One’ll not choose to go anywhere with Jack, ever again.
But that is tomorrow. Not today. And with his words, Jack can conjure up a place where he and John wander across the sand, find crabs in rock pools, and paddle in cooling water. For as long as he talks and John listens, that will be the only future that matters.