Mistaken For a Crime

by llamajoy

that's all you wanted, something special, someone sacred in your life
that's all i wanted, but sometimes love can be mistaken for a crime
(that's all i wanted, just to see my baby's blue eyed shine)

--"father figure," george michael

The boy is right on time, though out of breath. He runs a hasty hand through his hair, and tries to straighten his once-blue cloak about his shoulders. It does little to improve the impression of disarray.

It never occurs to him that he might be watched.

The man who has been waiting for him is not surprised at his punctuality, nor at the state of his clothes. He knows what the boy must have come through to arrive here, knows what is at stake if he is not on time. Under the shadow of his hood, he smiles.

Casually moving closer, he hears the boy negotiating the price on a bushel of foodstuff, and on a bolt of simple cloth. Normally, it would be quite hard to make out words over the din of the market and ships' bells, but he knows the boy's voice well. When the evening foghorn bellows its warning, obscuring all other sounds, he reads the boy's lips.

His look lingering longer, perhaps, than is necessary.

It is no secret that the boy is lovely. Thirteen, at the most, and slender still. The bobbing dock-lights catch silver highlights in his hair, and the sea breeze coaxes his cloak around his slim legs, outlining the shape of his body against the sky. Unusual, to see such a youth in such a place; little wonder that some passersby pause to stare.

But fewer people might notice the steadiness of his stance-- the deckhands of the Thames have a way of walking, to move with the roll and lift of their city on the sea. The boy has it, too; he moves easily where most marketgoers stumble.

Fewer still might realize that the stains on his trousers are blood, and not just his own.

The man follows him, not too closely, tracing those stains with his eyes: from knee to navel, the height of an average Reaper. The folds of the boy's clothes cannot disguise the edges of fresh ragged tears made by vicious sharp fingers, or the careful stitches mending prior damage. Nor can the salt air fully mask that distinctive scent of heat and sickly sweetness, of battles fought.

It is far too easy for him to imagine the struggles the boy has been through, this long day. To visualize that fight, the rush of bodies, the rise and fall of the boy's quickened breathing-- the wels bleeding at his feet. To hear that young voice shouting holy defiance, and whispering broken prayers when the day is won.

He catches his breath silently. Such visions may almost be too much for him to bear.

Almost as if he sensed the other's thought, the boy stops, looking over his shoulder. For a haunted moment both stand motionless, the boy's eyelids lowered, and his fingers inching towards the belt at his hip. No one in the crowd brushing past him, intent on trading business, perceives any threat. But the man, who has seen the holstered guns belted dormant against the boy's thighs, retreats a little.

It would not do if he were given away too soon.

In a nervous gesture, the boy lifts two fingers to rub the cross that hangs around his neck. He catches himself, eyes flicking warily around him, and tucks the pendant into his collar, heading for his gear.

As if that were any kind of anonymity. The man makes a sound, deep in his throat, as the boy ducks into the hangar, out of sight. The boy thinks it is only his cross that marks him as part of the Ethos; he thinks it is something he can hide. If only he knew, poor boy, if only he could see that, to those who can see, he is light and breath and all that is holy.

That is a lesson he must learn.

He catches up with him just inside the docking area, the boy resting one hand against the flank of his gear, as if for reassurance. Careful not to show his face, the man calls out to him. His voice naturally carries, but he is deliberate in his tone, rough, and urgent.

The child freezes; he senses trouble, though he does not yet understand. Approving, the man tries not to smile. It is obvious in the hunted look in the boy's eyes, that confusion, that mistrust. Wondering why a weathered shipman might take notice of a young boy such as himself-- and then realizing, all too quickly, what it must mean. He is too polite to recoil, but his face betrays his fear.

But he's wrong. It is not merely the tumult of his clothes, and the glimpsed promise of pale skin beneath, that has drawn the man's attention. Not only the flush of his cheeks and the determined glimmer in his eyes.

Without preamble the man advances, names his offer, and his price. He knows the boy must refuse, if he is to remain pure. And yet he cannot say, in truthfulness, that he wants him to refuse.

Silence lifts around them, the noises of the market falling away-- nothing between them but the unspoken answer.

Perhaps he only fancies that he can hear the thunder of the boy's heartbeat.

It may be the boy is thinking of the money. Figures dancing in his eyes, hope warring with disgust. How long would that sum feed them? How many nice new dresses would that buy, for his long-neglected little sister? He mouths something silently, a prayer perhaps. Someone not standing so close to him would not have seen the movement of his lips.

"You must make the right decision, child," the man does not say, "or you will be damned." Perfect, that indecision, that sweet crisis of faith. Caught up in it, the man is almost careless. The boy looks so shaken, the man finds himself resting his hand on his shoulder, a steadying pressure.

Sharply, the boy's head comes up, dizziness gone and something like recognition in his eyes-- and the man grips tighter, feeling the trembling beneath his fingers. Familiarity evaporating, he holds him hard enough to bruise.

Enough to make the boy wince, and wrench himself away. His young voice breaks out of him then, too quickly, words like eager waves lapping against the ship's hull: "No thank you sir, really I can't." And he hurries away, his shoulders shaking.

For a moment the man is quiet, not trusting his voice. A just and fitting conclusion. Weighed and measured and found worthy, the boy will learn that God provides for his children. Perhaps even tomorrow, doors will open and he need never consider such a sacrifice again.

And yet how bittersweet. The man lowers his hand, slowly, still feeling the echo of warm cloth beneath his palm. Assured the salvation of one soul, denied one night. Surely it should not be such a unexpected loss.

He watches the boy mount his gear and disappear into the cockpit, catching one last glimpse of tattered blue cloak and flash of silvery hair before the gear careens over the side of the Thames, back out over the ocean the way it came.

In his haste, the boy has forgotten his day's shopping; the food lies toppled, the cloth unrolled and spilling onto the deck. The man smiles to himself, hefting the bolt of cloth and righting the barrel. Such carelessness simply won't do. Perhaps tomorrow, he thinks again, these supplies and more will make their way to his door. The righteous deserve their reward.

His smile fades, a muted fire burning in his eyes. Yes, he deserves his reward.

The boy has no idea how beautiful he is.

He has his mother's eyes.


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