Oliver and Jack comfort each other in the workhouse, where they’ve been sent to await trial.
Though Jack soon fell asleep, in the dark his arms becoming slack, his breath going deep, Oliver could not join him. His wide-awake state was not because his surroundings were unfamiliar, but the opposite. He knew the feel of this dark, the dampness, the dank smell of an uncovered piss bucket in the corner, the mold from the mattresses, the sound of water dripping from somewhere—there was always water dripping. And a high-pitched sound from someone that could be snoring or sobbing.
All of this was so familiar that he had to blink against the darkness to assure himself of where he was. That he was in Jack’s arms, that between them they shared a bed, and that Jack was not Dick, and that none of this was from so long ago, when he’d been in the Hardingstone workhouse. He had to shake his head now, to rid himself of those thoughts, though others came soon to chase it.
Oliver did not believe in fortune-teller cards, or the runes found in tea leaves, but he did believe in the gentleman with the white waistcoat. Whose prediction was coming to pass, and directly the June assizes would be held, then Oliver would face the hangman’s noose. His heart raced at the thought of it, and he stifled the urge to get out of bed and pace the floor, to rub his arms with his hands and keep his blood flowing that way. To distract himself with the feel of the icy floor beneath his feet.
But he could not do that, because to stir was to wake Jack who, fast asleep, seemed to believe the workhouse held only the most ordinary of terrors. That a workhouse was just another building, and that leaving it would be a task far beneath his need to concentrate on it. Though Oliver dearly wanted to disabuse Jack of that notion, the daily grind of the workhouse would do that for him, soon enough.
Or maybe not, as perhaps his current fears merely magnified those of his nine-year-old self, when Mr. Bumble and his swift cane had ruled Oliver’s world. When even the simple darkness had scared him badly enough that he’d cowered in the corner.
Well, of course, he still didn’t much care for the deep of night, though he’d never told Jack this. Nor would he, not about that, or about how bad the workhouse would get. Because either Oliver would be proven wrong, and Jack might mock him, or he’d be proven right and both of them would suffer for it. What good would it do to speak of something that could not be avoided?
He turned himself in Jack’s nighttime arms, somewhat loose around him, but solid and still and quiet. Tucking himself beneath Jack’s chin, he buried himself there, with Jack’s scent all around him, in spite of the workhouse soap, and Jack’s breath, all of it. He anchored himself to Jack, as he could not bear the coming storm alone.
All this movement, in spite of his best intentions, bestirred Jack to a sleepy wakefulness.
“Hey?” asked Jack, and Oliver could hear him lick his lips. “Ain’t you asleep? Why not, eh?”
Those arms tightened around him, and while Oliver felt badly for having woken Jack, he took a deep breath, grateful that, for the moment, he was not alone with his fears.
As to why Oliver was not asleep, Jack did not seem to need an answer to this, for along with providing the shelter of his arms, he bent to kiss the top of Oliver’s head, and pressed his cheek there. He took a long, slow breath so that Oliver was lifted and lowered against Jack’s chest.
This should have been enough, but it wasn’t. The ache in his heart told him so. But he could not still the shake in his arms as he wrapped them around Jack’s waist, and dipped his head to pillow against Jack’s chest. And, curling his legs up beneath the blanket, made himself as small as possible, as if he were using Jack as a shield against what was to come.
“Nolly,” said Jack, petting Oliver’s head, his neck, the length of his back.
“Don’t say it, Jack,” said Oliver, his jaw stiff, “because it’s not true and it’s not going to be true.”
“Surely it will,” said Jack.
“Trust me, it won’t.”
For a moment, Jack was silent, though his hand was never still, always moving up and down Oliver’s back, a constant warmth in the dark that Oliver made himself believe would always be there.
“I’ll be with you, though,” said Jack. “You know I will.”
Oliver almost jumped out of his skin as the man in the next bed coughed and rolled over, and Oliver became quite aware that not everyone was asleep. At Hardingstone, a boy could turn in another boy for breaking the rules, and would be rewarded by extra food, or a thicker shirt to wear beneath his jacket. Perhaps it was the same here, and what other way would it be?
Workhouses were the same, as he, dismayed, had pointed out to Jack. So Oliver unlatched himself from Jack’s middle, shifted up till their legs tangled together. They were belly to belly, now, and Oliver could feel Jack’s mouth with his mouth.
“I do know it,” said Oliver, kissing him, once, very gently. “I’ve always known it.”
As Jack’s arms came up around him, the darkness of the room became soft, and the sounds of water dripping distant and unimportant. He told himself no one could see them or, if they did, they would not be able to discern Jack’s hand as it came up to touch Oliver’s face, Jack’s body shifting under his so it was Jack on the mattress, with Oliver upon him, pressing down, shielding Jack’s face with his arms, so he could kiss him in the further dark created by his body.
Jack tipped his head back, his breath warm on Oliver’s cheek as he turned and whispered his mouth along Oliver’s jaw. Oliver shivered and dipped his head into the hollow of Jack’s neck, and took a long slow breath, feeling Jack’s chest lift and fall beneath him.
In a short time, they would be too hungry and tired, too sore, for any niceties such as this. There was nothing the workhouse wouldn’t be able to wrench out of them, and after hours of labor and not enough food, sweet kisses from Jack would be the first thing to go.
But were he to tell Jack of this, Jack would deny it, and however quiet their voices as Oliver attempted to convince him otherwise, someone would hear of it, and that was one too many witnesses for Oliver’s liking. In a workhouse, there was not only nowhere to go, but no escape. No refuge. Only cold and want.
What made it worse this time was that he’d been outside the wall, and had breathed free air, and had walked along the street, and had a hot meal waiting for him at the end of the day. In comparison, the dark maw of the workhouse was even darker than he’d ever thought possible.
“You shiverin’, Nolly. C’mere, slide down next to me, an’ I’ll pull the blanket over us both.”
Oliver did as Jack bade him, slipping into the curve of Jack’s arms to rest his head on Jack’s breast, and for a moment, only a moment, let himself be taken care of, closing his eyes as the rough blanket drifted down upon him. Jack reached over to sweep Oliver’s hair back from his forehead and, as Jack took his hand away, Oliver felt the contrast of the cold, damp air, and the plink plink sound of dripping water. Inhaled the smell of urine in a tin bucket, and the tartness of unwashed skin filling the night air around him.
“Sleep, sweetheart, sleep. Jack’s here w’you, I’m here w’you now.”
Jack needed to sleep, so Oliver needed to let him and get some rest himself. The morning would come, as it always did, to occupy them with hard work of an untold nature. It might be picking oakum or it might be scrubbing floors; it might be anything. But he could not let his own fears bring Jack down with him. He could not bend beneath the pressure that surrounded him, of the dark night, of the smells, the uncertainty. He would not let it break him, and he would not let it hurt Jack.
Setting his jaw, he made himself stop shivering, made his grip around Jack’s middle relax, and felt Jack sigh beneath him.
“Sweet Nolly,” said Jack, with a faint exhale of breath, half asleep already, untroubled by the promise the workhouse made to each and every pauper who entered its doors that the morning would come quick, and death not quick enough.
From that fate, Oliver promised himself Jack would be safe, even if Oliver had to work himself to the point of collapse to make sure of it. He’d come this far to be with Jack; he would go further than that to protect him. This was how it felt, then, to love someone so much it hurt. To be willing to be hurt to protect another. In a workhouse, yet. In the dark, cold workhouse night.
“Goodnight, Jack,” said Oliver, pressing his mouth to the slope of Jack’s neck. “Stay with me till morning,” he said, “stay with me, say you will.”
But Jack was already asleep, and Oliver was once more alone.