Disclaimer: all characters originally created by Mr Charles Dickens, and, in this universe, brought to life on stage and screen by Lionel Bart and Carol Reed.
Oliver is reasonably confident that he can remove Jack from the premises bodily if necessary, given that he has two or three inches of height on him - he's estimated it, at various times over the past few years, and now with the other man directly in front of him, he's certain of it - and perhaps a stone or so of weight as well. It's not, though, that he really wants to, very much; not when this is his first close look at Jack in a good while. The last time that Oliver had seen him, he had been picking pockets up and down the course on Derby Day, apparently for the fun of it, because Oliver suspects that anyone dressed like the dandy that Jack invariably is nowadays must have long since progressed to a rather higher league.
He had looked up from his card just once, and there he had been, not twenty yards away - the Artful Dodger, as once was, in the most outlandish silk brocade waistcoat and with his necktie arranged into the widest wings, picking his way figuratively and literally through the masses with all the agility of a ballroom dancer. Wallets, watches, ladies' purses and lace handkerchiefs were finding their way inside his own pockets with such regularity that Oliver had found himself utterly nonplussed at how anyone could not notice what was going on the way he could, and then realizing that it was because he still knew what to look for. And after that, with a feeling that he was unsure what to make of, thinking that it was because it was Jack, and Oliver's always aware of his presence before Jack ever actually crosses his path.
He should have called something out, but he didn't. Then again, he never does.
When he hasn't seen Jack around for a while, he starts to think that perhaps the other man has been too artful once too often; that even the luck of the Devil has to run out eventually, and that he and his finery have taken up unhappy residence in a Newgate cell. But Jack always reappears in his own time, as swaggering, turned-up-nosed and limber as ever and twice as large as life, with a spring in his step for good measure that gives Oliver a peculiar sense of relief.
The last time that they exchanged words, it had been a sharp, clear day in early February, full of surprise sunshine without being warm enough to take the whiteness from the house-tops and lamp-posts. Oliver had been on his way to visit a client, electing to walk the short distance rather than call for a hansom, and when he was about to cross the street not very far from High Holborn, Jack had slid abruptly out from one doorway or another, falling almost at once into step with him. Before long, he began to tsk softly, and when Oliver shot a glance his way, there was a glint in his eye although he wore an expression of abject disapproval.
"Careless today," he said, and before Oliver could instinctively start to reach into his pocket to check it, Jack had grabbed his arm and jerked him to a halt, and Oliver's own wallet was stuffed back into his hand. He looked down at it, then back up at Jack.
"Thankyou," he said, after a moment.
Jack had clicked his heels together at that, and given him a little bow. "Still green as grass," he said. "Use your noddle around these parts, Oliver," and then he was gone, vanishing on the crowded street so quickly that it was obvious that it was as familiar to him as the back of his hand or the shape of his nose.
Sometimes Oliver wonders if it's happenstance that Jack manages to find him as often as he does, and then other times he thinks that it very probably isn't, such as tonight when Jack is standing in Oliver's kitchen with one hand tucked inside his coat and an expression of both hopefulness and mortification on his face.
After the business about picking the lock of the scullery door is dealt with, Jack draws his hand out gingerly from the lapels of his coat, and Oliver looks at it, looks at him, and, in a very short time, says, "I'll fetch my bag."
"I've had a discomfiture a time or two before," Jack says, "and if I ain't bleeding, I'm usually all right," but he is bleeding; has been all over his coat lining and his shirt front, and it's no great mystery when he's gashed and skinned near enough to the gristle, from his knuckles to the heel of his hand to the fine bones of his wrist. Two fingers are black with bruises, the blood pooling beneath the swollen skin, probably either sprained or broken; Oliver's seen such things before, enough to be able to guess, and he doesn't know what makes it turn his stomach over now, apart from the fact that it's Jack; it's Dodger.
His patient is nonetheless seated at the table in fine fettle until Oliver draws a basin of water and begins the laborious task of cleaning out the wounds, which causes him to voice his protests by swearing like a heathen. So he talks him into taking a drop or two of laudanum in a glass of brandy, and soon enough Jack is acquiescent and watching Oliver's efforts with intent eyes.
"I thought you'd send me on my way with a piece of paper," he says, "and not put your hands all over the horrible customers. As it goes."
"I can manage." Oliver scrubs, thoroughly, a little brutally, feeling not a small amount of shame well up inside, but he doesn't want to have to wrap over more grit and brick-dust than is absolutely necessary. He's licensed and written up in Latin as a physician, not a surgeon, but he works according to need more than he does to convention, and tonight, Jack has need of him. "It's hardly as if I'm in trade," he adds.
"Neither am I," Jack says, "perish the thought," and then, leaning forward conspiritally, so that his breath so nearly ghosts across Oliver's ear, "But it ain't gentlemanly, Oliver."
A faint sensation rolls through Oliver that starts on his skin and comes to rest in his spine. "Well," he says, "I don't imagine that you acquired this through any gentlemanly sporting."
"I wouldn't say that, at all. I call His Worshipfulness the Lord Mayor of London's house very gentlemanly indeed, though I grant you my intentions is there to have the magistrate make an order against him."
"I'm not going to ask on what account," Oliver says, evenly, "because I expect that you'll tell me, anyway. Even if I'm not sure whether or not I believe you. I don't know if I want to know exactly how much of a villain you might or might not be these days."
"On account of the terrible poor state of repair of the drain-pipe outside his daughter's window, and its likelihood to break under the hand and body of a person, what has just been calling to make the young lady's intimate acquaintance after relieving the premises of some troublesome value-ables."
"Then I'm right."
"Oh, on what count might that be?"
"I don't believe you." Oliver wrings out the cloth, and the water takes on a dull, ruddy hue, the acrid smell of copper permeating the air. "Not all of it, at least," he clarifies, and goes to empty the basin. Somewhere along the way there and back, he notices the bright bloody flowers that Jack has splashed on the tiles on his way in, and the rusty boot-marks where he's trodden in the dark. He returns to the table and turns the wick of the lamp higher, sending their shadows leaping towards the ceiling, and starts to prepare the splints and bandages. As he reaches out this time, Jack meets him halfway, offering himself up. His eyes are shining a little from the laudanum.
"I hardly know anything about you any more," Oliver says.
Jack shrugs, just barely perceptibly. "You know me well enough. We go in different circles, that's all that it is."
"And I don't share your insatiable appetite for larceny."
"You always was wasted. It's a crying shame. A downright tragedy."
Oliver's aware that he's smiling in spite of his efforts, just a tug at the corners of his mouth, and he doesn't know why he misses this, why he misses Jack when he doesn't see him often enough that it should be so tangible when he hasn't for a while. And he thinks about how Jack's probably headed straight for Hell, but that he'll talk himself out of it when he arrives.
"I don't need the money," he says, "and by the looks of you now, I shouldn't have imagined that you needed quite so very much of it."
Jack appears to debate the theory, a rare grin starting to break through on his own face, despite still being twisted with discomfort. After a short interval, he says, "Can I presume that you've had a girl?" and, when Oliver only goes on prudently bandaging, the grin begins to widen. "Or a feller, at the least?"
"Even if that weren't my own business and not yours, I haven't any idea how it relates to your profession."
"Because, my covey," Jack says, "it's one and the same." His good hand slides inside his coat, and, when it reappears, he has a gold brooch shaped like a peacock grasped in his deft, angular fingers, its tailfeathers outlined with a sweep of tiny sapphires. He drops it between them and dips again, this time bringing up a riviere so heavy with diamonds that it seems a wonder that any owner of such an ornament would be able to hold up her head. "When you see something what takes your fancy," he continues, adding to the little heap slowly growing on the table; earbobs, necklaces, coral and ivory bracelets, tiny silver perfume bottles, rings weighted to the knuckle with rubies, lockets and combs and pins, miniature replicas of flowers and foliage picked out in everything precious, "You can't help yourself wanting to touch."
Oliver finishes tying off the bandage. Jack cocks his head a little, curiously, and Oliver is suddenly put obscenely in mind of the first time that they met, of their having been children together. He wonders how they came to this when, by rights, they should never have seen each other again. They should never have meant anything to each other, anything at all.
"Ain't you got something to say?" Jack enquires.
"What I have to say might consist of opening the door and shouting for a policeman," Oliver says. He lets that much sink in, before he adds, "So you're fortunate that I don't intend to say anything."
Jack regards him for a heartbeat or two, and then his expression slowly develops into an out-and-out smirk, although not one without a certain warmth. "Oliver, it's times like this that nearly give me my faith back."
He reaches across the table to retrieve his spoils, and, as he does so, his hand bumps and collides with the curve of Oliver's, both too hard and not hard enough to be purely accidental. The jewels begin to vanish from sight again, inside his coat, into the depths of his pockets, but when he finally reaches the peacock brooch, he pauses, stroking it between his thumb and forefinger. Then he holds it out. "Payment for services rendered," he says.
"No, thankyou all the same," Oliver says, and hears Jack sigh at that. "You might visit, instead," he suggests, cautiously, and, by way of clarification, "I do need to look at that hand again, after all."
"Ah, the toffs can stroll by after leaving a card, and I've to risk my arse." Jack shakes his head in mock-sorrow. Then, as something that can hardly be described as anything but salacious slides across his face, "But I'll be pretty content, I should expect, to risk it."
Oliver rises, and Jack follows suit. The night still feels vaguely wanting, like something's incomplete or yet to come, and Oliver would have debated whether he's all but imagining the degree of tension in the room; whether this is really a chance, or only a brief interlude. There are certain ghosts between them, but, at the same time, the memory of having been friends. Jack looks as if he's waiting for something, and - moreover - that he has the patience to have been waiting for quite a time. Oliver clears his throat a little.
"You'd better leave the way you came in," he says. A thought takes him, because he did bring it up, after all. "Jack?" he asks.
"Did you really seduce the Mayor's daughter?"
"It's a good story, ain't it? Make the evening paper if it was to get out. Might even be true."
Jack considers this for a few moments. "Well," he says, presently, "That's something I daresay you'll always be wondering about." He starts to turn, as if to make his exit, then pauses. "Oh... and in respect of the matter of payment -"
"Yes," Oliver says, waiting for him to go on. And doesn't reach the point of saying anything else, because Jack has stepped forward, taken a swift hold of Oliver's collar, and kissed him so hard, lips and teeth and tongue and insolent sweetness, that despite how fleeting it is, he feels faintly surprised afterwards when the other man opens the door and the light of the moon slants across his face, because he'd felt fairly certain that it must have died. Along with a few of the stars as well, perhaps.
With a blend of mockery and sincerity that leans the closer towards neither, Jack doffs his hat. "Good night, Oliver," he says.
"Good night," Oliver replies, at length. Jack hesitates briefly on the scullery doorstep, looking at him. Then his shadow detaches itself from the wall, and he strides away once more into the cool air, leaving Oliver to watch him go, an alert but dapper figure passing in and out of the glow of the lamps, walking half in the darkness and half in the light.