At this point in the story, Oliver has moved in with Jack at the Three Cripples. He feels a tad lost in this new life that he has taken up, and turns to Jack for comfort and, perhaps, for more than mere comfort.
They moved from the table in the middle of the room to the small alcove. Oliver stood by, holding his hat and Jack’s as Jack shoved and threatened for the current occupants to leave, which they did, muttering and stomping off. Oliver didn’t care how rude Jack was, but he couldn’t stand being in the middle of the room with all eyes upon them, watching and listening. Especially after Jack’s display of temper. So the alcove was much better.
Much better, that is, than being at a table in the center of the main room, but that did not mean it was better than his old life, not by half. Since he could remember, things had gone from bad to worse, and even when they’d been better, as during those dear, gentle years in the country with Aunt Rose and Uncle Harry, they’d got bad again, in the end. His own attempts at setting his life to rights had led him back here, to this very spot, at the Three Cripples. With Jack.
Jack, who, even if he’d come from quality people, would always be what he was, a child of the streets. Nothing would ever change him, so even if Oliver’s world whirled around him like a sandstorm—
Raising his hand to order them something to eat and drink, Jack took his cards out of his pocket, shuffling them between the fingers of one hand. He took his hat from Oliver and lay it on the table, pushing his dark hair back from his face, distractedly staring at nothing. Oliver looked at Jack, seeing the spark of candlelight reflecting off the silver buttons of Jack’s blue waistcoat, seeing the flash in his green eyes.
When Doreen brought them some food, Oliver eyed the tin plate of slices of beef that looked none too fresh, and the boiled eggs, which had a tinge of green around the yellow yolks. He stuck to the beer, taking huge swallows and, it being fairly fresh beer, he drank the rest of the pot.
With the arrival of the food, Jack became his usual self, relaxed, scanning the crowd, keeping an eye out, taking a drink from the pot of beer when it was brought to him. Perhaps he was expecting that Oliver would ask him to teach him a new card game in spite of Oliver’s rather emphatic declaration that he did not want to spend his life this way. So why was he continuing to do that very thing?
But now that the afternoon was becoming evening, what Jack had said to Oliver earlier kept coming back to him. Jack, who so rarely spoke about how he felt about anything, and never about himself. It was as if Jack had given Oliver something that was only Jack’s to give.
You was the only one I knew in London…I knew I had to look for you—I knew that you would never come lookin’ for me.
No one had ever said anything like that to him. No one had ever looked at Oliver the way Jack did, as though he meant something, that he mattered to Jack. But Jack’s expression now, the furrow between his brows when all he was about was a drink and some cards and his pipe, as usual—perhaps it was that Jack feared he’d said too much.
Jack looked at him, flipping three cards face up in front of Oliver, as if inviting him to play a game. In spite of heartfelt comments that anyone might regret the impulse of, Jack was now the very figure of equanimity. As if ignoring the fact that Oliver was staring at him, Jack drew from the pipe and laid it aside. And in that moment, in the quietness of Jack’s eyes, Oliver saw a place there that was for him and him alone. It made something stir inside of him, a sense of having found something that he’d not known was lost. That Jack truly cared for him and that he, in return, truly cared for Jack.
“What you frownin’ at, then, Nolly?” Jack asked, tapping the edges of the cards against the table.
“Nothing,” said Oliver, ignoring the galloping of his heart as it tried to race ahead of the lie and at the quickly unraveling control of his own arms and limbs. “The beer—it always goes to my head.”
“You always could suffer the gin better,” said Jack. “Shall I get you one?”
“No, I just want to—I need to put my head down.”
And this not merely because the room was becoming dim and booming around him, but also because he couldn’t gather his thoughts, was unable to collect them into a tidy bundle that would indicate to him what he should do.
What he wanted to do was to reach out and touch Jack and wipe away the last traces of Noah’s story, and in their place, leave his own scent behind. To follow the curves of Jack’s face with his fingers, as his eyes were now doing. And untangle the sparks in his belly that were spreading up his spine and down the backs of his thighs.
“I just need to lie down,” he said. “Can we just go up—go upstairs?”
As Jack’s eyebrows flew up, Oliver felt his face flush, and he had a heated, desperate wish to take it back. Jack was going to mock him, tip back his head and laugh—
But Jack didn’t. Instead, he half-blinked at Oliver with lazy eyes, and stood, taking up the cards and the clay pipe, still smoking, in the cup of his hand.
“C’mon, then, you,” said Jack.
He gently pushed Oliver before him on the bench, pulling Oliver to a stand, as though he were a young child who needed a gentle hand to the back to guide him through a dark place. Oliver let him, feeling the heat of Jack’s hand through layers of wool jacket and muslin shirt that seemed, now, quite thin.
Though some faraway part of him heeded caution, Oliver led the way through the crowded tavern, and Jack followed close behind, up the stairs, and down the narrow brown hallway, gloomy in the dim afternoon light. Their footsteps echoed on the worn floorboards, and Oliver waited, leaning against the doorjamb as Jack took out his key and undid the useless lock, the metal jaws of the key scraping loudly against the rusty tumblers.
Jack walked into the dark room, with Oliver close on his heels. Jack went over to the mantelpiece, a dim, narrow line along the wall above the dark maw of the cold, empty fireplace. He didn’t light the candle but stood there a moment, drawing the last mouthfuls of smoke in preparation for dampening the ashes in the pipe to put it in the bowl on the mantelpiece. Oliver closed the door, leaning back against it.
“There should be a fire in that grate,” he said.
“I’ll get coal,” said Jack, though he made no move to go past Oliver or to open the door or anything.
Oliver knew his teeth were chattering, as if he was cold, but he wasn’t. His breath felt tight in his throat, as if he were scared, but he wasn’t. It was as if his whole body knew he was alone with Jack. Alone in a room with Jack, as if this were a new thing, one that he’d never done before.
He had not anticipated his hands feeling so empty, his arms wanting something to hold, his belly feeling hollow, full of sparks, or his groin tightening, as if it wanted particular action, and it wanted it now. Or that Jack would be looking at him with the expression of someone who is seeing the Rapture for the first time, eyes wide and expectant. Unless he was mistaken, and Jack truly believed that Oliver wanted to rest simply because his head was thick with beer. Oliver blinked, quite unable to explain in words what he wanted, either to himself or to Jack.
From somewhere deep within him came an impulse, from a place so still and untrammeled by grief or sorrow or doubt. A strong, deep place in his heart that still believed in blue skies and that all would be well. A place that had enough strength to weather any storm. If Jack didn’t want Oliver, if he hadn’t meant what he’d said before, hadn’t intended Oliver to feel the way he was feeling—then he could simply push Oliver away and continue smoking his pipe. The risk would be all Oliver’s.
There was a tiny pause as Jack drew on his pipe, and before he could do anything else, Oliver walked over to him and kissed the smoke from Jack’s mouth. Pausing with his lips over Jack’s, sensitive and shivering, he drew the smoke in, tasting it on Jack’s breath, and the beer. And thought of that long ago day when they’d met, when everything had changed, and nothing that had happened since had been able to stand in the way of this moment.
“Oh,” said Jack, holding his pipe to one side, not pulling away. “If that’s what you’re about, then—”
It didn’t matter that Jack was pretending with his casual words, pretending not to be nervous. Oliver was warm through, his hands on Jack, warm, tugging on Jack’s coat and touching the skin of his throat. The room was dim; Oliver could barely see; the only light was the spark from Jack’s pipe.
“Here,” Oliver said, holding the pipe to Jack’s mouth.
Jack took it and drew in a breath, holding the smoke till Oliver kissed him again and tasted the smoke. Then he took the pipe and, in the darkness, put it in the bowl on the mantelpiece. The wooden ledge was narrow, but the pipe would be safe there till morning or later in the evening or whenever Jack might look for it again. But now Jack was pulling off his coat, and Oliver heard it land with a thump on the floorboards.
He didn’t remark on Jack’s slovenly habits, because it didn’t matter. His own jacket fell to the floor also, and the night would hide the scatter of boots and stockings and the loose collar of Oliver’s shirt that Jack unbuttoned with slow and careful hands. Then Jack put his hands on Oliver’s neck, pushing the collar away and down, untying the kerchief around Oliver’s neck, putting his mouth on the curve of Oliver’s jaw, sending a shiver through him.
Many a hero in the books he’d read had kissed his princess, but the descriptions had never indicated that a kiss would set his whole body shivering. No written word had ever described it quite like this, a raw enfolding, a consuming mouth, the smell of sweat and salt. The jerky breath, the sparks wherever Jack’s mouth alighted.
But whether it was love, as written of in the books he’d read, or something brought on by the drink, his body pushed into Jack’s hands, which stroked his hair and pulled at his trouser buttons and seemed to be everywhere all at once. Jack did not say words of love nor even really speak, though Oliver was sure he would not have been able to hear him over the thudding of his own heart, the effect of the beer seemingly burned away by the heat of his skin and the sear left behind in the trail of Jack’s fingers.
“Will you, then, Jack?” Oliver asked, not quite clear what he was asking or why.
Jack answered him, just the same, by undoing his own trousers and then Olivier’s, and pushing Oliver on the bed, tipping him back, suddenly, to land against the hard, flocked mattress.
It was an uncomfortable bed at best, but when Jack was on him, his thighs straddling Oliver’s thighs, his hands stroking the bareness of Oliver’s ribs where his shirt rode high, he forgot about the bed, for Jack was hard and soft against him all at once, the dust and the salt from his skin so close as Jack shucked his shirt, trailing the long tails of it across Oliver’s face as he pushed it aside.
Jack would be cold that way, all on his own, his chest bare in the night, so Oliver struggled to put his hands on the folds of his shirt to pull it free from his trousers, arching his back. Jack helped him for a moment, then pressed Oliver’s hand to his crotch, where the hardness of Jack’s sex was outlined as an iron brand. He moved Oliver’s hand on him, over the trousers, then pulled Oliver’s hand inside, and Oliver touched Jack where the skin was soft and shockingly hot.
“Come along, then, Nolly,” said Jack, when Oliver’s hand jerked away. “Just a little bit. It won’t hurt you none, an’ then I’ll show you how nice it can be. Right?”
How Jack had his wits about him enough to speak, Oliver didn’t know; he couldn’t imagine being sane enough to articulate a sequence of events, the end to which Oliver didn’t know, had never known. But Jack knew, and he leaned low and kissed Oliver on his temples, brushing softly as he kissed Oliver’s eyelids and his nose and then his mouth, a little rough and tasting sour from the beer, but sending shocks through Oliver’s body that felt like small, sharp flickers of lightning.
When Jack pressed even lower, their chests touching, Jack’s bare one to his shirted one, Oliver’s arm was trapped between him, and only his hand could move. So he did, curling his fingers around Jack’s hard sex, his palm dampened by Jack’s pleasure, the hair of Jack’s private hair scratching against Oliver’s wrist.
When he moved his fingers and did it again, Jack made low sounds in his throat that Oliver had never heard anyone make before. Anxious pleas and some unspoken pain vibrated into Oliver’s ear, simmering all the way down to his belly. Desire flared, hot as flame, as Jack thrust into his hand, pushing faster than Oliver could keep up with, and finally, his hips against Oliver’s, he shoved one time so hard it almost hurt, as he pulsed into Oliver’s hand, leaving hot dampness behind.
Jack flung himself backward on the mattress, sideways, almost knocking Oliver off, and before Oliver could get up from the bed, shocked, eyes wide, Jack reached for him, pulling Oliver alongside him, hips hot together, saying, “Come here, come here.”
Laying hands upon him, Jack pushed down Oliver’s open trousers, and took Oliver, now hard as a poker, against his belly. The sin of it clanged inside of his head as the pleasure of it, of Jack’s hand, moving up and down, overrode sense like a thundering horse until sin was only a vague notion.
Squirming against Jack, Oliver felt the wildness of his body, out of control, as Jack stroked him up and down, chastity vanishing as his whole body clenched. Sweat and heat raced up his spine, and he spent into Jack’s hand, curling forward with a violent spell of heat that left him panting into Jack’s shoulder, sweat freezing along his almost-bare hips, the small of his back.
“There, then, petal,” said Jack, whispering into the crown of his hair, kissing his temple. “You belong to me now, as ever you was.”
Oliver could only nod, struggling to breathe, thinking to straighten his trousers and tug his shirt into place as Jack reached behind him to drag the thin woolen blanket up over them. Letting the scratchy edge be tucked under his chin as Jack refused to let him go, wrapping his arms around Oliver’s shoulders and pulling him close till they were both on the bed, squarely, the pillow beneath Jack’s head, and Jack himself for Oliver’s pillow.
“Sleep now,” said Jack, his voice mumbling off in the darkness.
As Oliver obeyed, part of his brain thought of Jack’s shirt and how he would be cold without it. But Oliver could not move his arm, as it was across Jack’s belly, rising slow and deep in sleep, where Jack already was. Oliver’s eyelids flickered to the blue sky in his mind, now moving low into a slow, darkening nigh, where there was peace and stillness and a river inside of him that overflowed and seeped gently across thirsty green banks. Oliver closed his eyes and let himself follow Jack.