Sunshine poured in the open casement window and had already dried the thin cotton curtain. Oliver sat up, completely naked, with half the bedclothes twisted about his ankles and the other half on the floor. He felt something cool along his side, and found the vial of oil miraculously mostly corked. There was a small circle of oil stain on the bedclothes, but nothing to worry about, so he placed the vial to stand on the table just as, beside him in the bed facing the wall, Jack also stirred.
“Time is it?” asked Jack with a grunt, rolling over and poking Oliver in the ribs with his elbow as he scrubbed at his eyes. “I mean to go out.”
“I beg your pardon?” asked Oliver. He knew he was looking at Jack as though Jack had grown two heads, but it couldn’t be helped. “It’s not even nine o’clock, and what do you mean you’re going out? Out to work?”
“Yes, to work.” Jack sat up now, too, his hair dark witch-weed about his head, his body silky warm in the early morning’s coolness, the gift of a night of rain. “I’m all clean an’ oiled now so it should be a right easy thing slippin’ my hand into some old duffer’s pockets.”
This made Oliver laugh out loud, though the prospect of Jack so soon on the streets quite filled him with worry.
“But are you ready to go out?” asked Oliver. “You still need rest.”
“An’ I tells you I don’t need nothin’, ’cause I’m ready to go,” said Jack quite firmly as he crawled across Oliver’s bare legs to get out of bed and stand up. “I’m well enough rested. I needs to be gettin’ back to what I knows best, on account of that’s the best tonic I know.”
Oliver looked at Jack, all up and down as he fumbled for his stockings and trousers and everything else. It was easy to see, after the bath and the soothing of the sweet oil, that Jack did look better. His face had more color, his shoulders moved with more ease and, overall, he was much as he’d been before—before they’d taken the shortcut to get to London Bridge and everything had turned so disastrous. But he was loath to let Jack out of his sight, so perhaps—
“Might I come with you, Jack? Like we did before, you and I?”
The moment he’d asked it, Oliver knew he should not have. For there was a long moment of silence as Jack pulled his muslin shirt over his head and began to tuck it into his trousers, his beautiful mouth turned down in a frown.
“I don’t have to, but I would if you wanted me to—”
Oliver’s words stumbled to a halt. It was difficult to know where the balance lay, between wanting Jack where Oliver could see him, take care of him, and letting Jack be Jack.
“Some other time, perhaps,” said Jack. He shook his head as he tightened his belt and did up the buckle. “When I’ve proven myself to myself.”
As Jack looked at Oliver, his green eyes so dark in the morning light, there was nothing Oliver could do but nod in agreement. Besides, he knew well the power of focusing on something other than a troublesome worry or a memory so bad that it threatened to tear the heart asunder; work was a good cure for all ills.
“You will be careful and not get yourself arrested, right?” asked Oliver. He got up as well, since the day was underway, and reached for his shirt from the pile where he’d put it. “Look, my shirt is cleaner than yours, so will you take it? For my sake?”
Unspoken was the idea that a slightly less bedraggled Jack would attract slightly less attention whilst on the street. It wouldn’t be much but it would help, so Oliver stood there in the altogether and continued to hold the shirt out as he shook it at Jack.
“Please, Jack? For me?”
This must have done Jack right in, for he sighed as if put-upon, but seemed very pleased at the same time, if his secret, small smile was anything to go by. He stripped off the shirt and tossed it on the bed. Then he took Oliver’s shirt and tugged it on, and tucked it in beneath the waist of his trousers, struggling until Oliver stepped forward to undo the belt whilst Jack put the shirt where it needed to go. When Jack was to rights, Oliver re-fastened the belt and snagged Jack’s waistcoat and cap from the floor.
“You’ll look like a vagrant without these,” said Oliver, trying to be serious, but he enjoyed the sight of Jack fussing with his attire, as if Oliver weren’t standing there quite naked. “And I shall miss you while you’re out.”
Jack said nothing, but arranged his cloth cap on his head in that jaunty way that he liked to do, and gave Oliver a quick kiss on the mouth. It was not a passionate kiss, but it held much affection, a promise for the hope of tomorrow, which, while it hid its own sorrows, also held the promise of something good.
“You’ll be here?” asked Jack as he opened the door to go out it and down the stairs. “Waitin’ for me?”
“Of course I will, Jack,” said Oliver, fighting some unease at the sight of Jack ready to go to work, while he himself would have to remain behind. “I shall probably help out in the taproom, and see if I can set things to rights down there.”
“Save them from themselves, you mean,” said Jack with a wink, and then he was out the door, eager and bright, leaving a dim shadow of himself behind.
Which left Oliver standing there, blinking at the door.
He wondered how things had come to this, where he was standing stark naked in a room at the Three Cripples, all on his own. But this was Jack’s way of keeping busy, just as Oliver would have done and, indeed, had done, in the past.
So Oliver got dressed and finished by putting on his sturdy boots, which had proven their mettle over and over, and slipped the suspenders over his shoulders. He stood up, leaving his cap and waistcoat in the room, and went downstairs.
He planned to grab an apron and get to work, following, of course, Jack’s industrious example, the thought of which just made Oliver smile to himself. But nobody noticed, so he didn’t have to explain anything to anybody.