Oliver had always been a bony kid. So, he was surprised that Garth saw him as a source of comfort—or, at least that's what Oliver assumed was happening.
He had woken up to scratchy nuzzling against his belly. Eyes popping open, the first thing he saw was a brown head of hair. Garth was kneeling over him and pawing at him like some sort of starved animal, like somehow he'd be nourished by the taste of Oliver's skin. However, when he started to teeth at Oliver's nipple, it was time to call things to order.
The hulk of a man hovering over him froze.
"Just how long has it been since you've been with someone?"
Oliver watched as the strained, tense line of Garth's shoulders loosened, and then all at once he flopped over—leaving his arm draped across Oliver's chest. He let out one, long exhale before saying, "Months and months. And that was just a rub and tug I paid for at the card hall."
Rolling to his side, Oliver hugged Garth's arm close to his chest. He grinned at the red flush that bloomed all the way down Garth's chest. "You never asked a pro to live with you?"
Oliver frowned. He honestly hadn't been expecting that. "And?"
"He said no."
There was weary circumspection in Garth's voice, not heartbreak. "Probably for the best, not sure even liked me. Plus I was drunk when I asked."
Oliver almost asked if Garth had really been that desperate, but the question felt cruel on his tongue so he swallowed it back. "Has that worked out for anyone, though? Asking a man from Shagalice to go live with them?"
"Sure. Here or there."
"They're afraid something like what happened with Jamal would happen to them."
Garth was silent for a moment and staring up at the ceiling. He seemed to have forgotten, momentarily, that Oliver was clutching his arm and rubbing along the line of his bicep. "What happened with Jamal… has happened before. He knew the risk, and he knew Timmy was a real scoundrel. He thought he could get the boy out into the woods and keep him there, keep him out of trouble. He might not have been in his right mind, really."
"What do you mean?"
Once again, Garth took a moment to respond. Oliver could practically see him trying to work through what he wanted to say. Finally, he cleared his throat. "There's a certain point out here when you wanna give up, or you—" His voice faltered, his eyes narrowed. "—you start thinking, why do I have to follow the rules? No one else follows the rules."
"Well, I ain't saying he didn't trust Timmy, and I ain't saying Timmy was a victim. But Jamal probably thought the damn brides were never coming, so he'd make a few promises to Timmy, oversell some things, and then deal with the consequences later. He probably thought he should do anything to convince Timmy to come. And once he had him in the port, well, there just wouldn't be any way for Timmy to get back."
"Man…" Jamal was really starting to lose some points in Oliver's eyes. "That's sick."
Garth frowned. And then slowly, he pulled away from Oliver and crossed his arms over his chest. "You don't get it."
He said it like he hadn't expected anything different, like he should have realized Oliver wasn't going to sanction tricking someone into living isolated in the woods. "Yeah, I don't get it. You said yourself, Jamal lied to Timmy. What am I supposed to get about that?"
"Nothing yet." Garth scrubbed a palm down his face. "But later, you will."
"This is how you turn the comm on, everyone's already logged there so all you need to do is dial up my port, or Andrew's."
"Right." Oliver watched Garth scroll through his many contacts on the comm screen, but didn't see anything related to the Shagalice authorities. Oh well, it's not like Oliver could do much with that even if he did get in contact. No, he needed a face-to-face meeting. "So can I just call up Andrew any time and chat?"
Garth clicked the comm off. "No. You ain't earned that privilege."
Oliver's lip curled. He'd forgotten about the whole privilege thing. He hadn't been that surprised when Garth never mentioned trading sex, but now Oliver was kind of wishing he had. That would make things so much easier than the nebulous situation he was stuck in now. "Are you going to explain how I earn the right to use the comm?"
Having moved over to the kitchen table, where he was packing up a sandwich and a thermos of coffee, Garth paused and seemed to consider the question. "Well," he said finally, "How about this: you earn ten minutes on the comm by coming up with a good list of privilege-earning things yourself."
Oliver snorted. "Well, look who knows how to delegate."
"Just think you should start using your brain and figuring out how things get done around here," Garth replied, not sounding the least bit offended by Oliver's jibe. "Once you get settled, I expect you to take up some of the responsibilities. I can't handle mining, hunting, and cabin upkeep for two people on my own."
Well now Oliver just felt like he was being lectured by a parent. So of course a teenage-level of sullenness burned in his chest. "Bringing a second person out here was your choice."
"Yes, that's true." Garth zipped his jacket up. He was decked out in full bad-weather gear, including odd-looking rubber overalls that Oliver figured were meant for slogging around in deep mud. "But what I'm telling you to do is nothing compared to the kinda work they'd be having you do down at the government mines."
He slung his pack over his shoulder, looked at Oliver, and then cupped Oliver's cheek. Without warning, he leaned over and left a smack of a kiss on Oliver's lips. Pulling away, he said, "Be a good boy."
And then, after a moment of hesitation, he added: "If I'm not back by an hour after nightfall, call Jamal and have him come pick you up. He'll come if you tell him I ain't shown up."
Oliver didn't have to ask why Garth wouldn't come back. There were a million ways he could die out there alone. "What about those raiders?"
"If you hear anything, go hide just beyond the border of the woods. But don't lose sight of the cabin. You'll get lost out there if you go too far."
"Garth…why can't I just come with you?"
Garth was already shaking his head before Oliver finished his question. "You're not gonna learn how to mine, not a single thing about it. I'm putting my foot down about that."
"So I can't earn for myself?"
"Yes." Garth walked to the door, pulled it open, and seemed to brace himself for the cold and rain. He stopped at the threshold, glanced over his shoulder, and stared at Oliver with unblinking eyes.
Oliver could see the fear in those brown depths.
But then Garth sniffed, turned back around, and strode into the dark.
Oliver had always planned by taking notes and organizing his thoughts on paper. This proved difficult when there didn't seem to be any paper in the cabin.
He amused himself by looking. Downstairs was spartan: just the living area with the couch and fireplace, and the kitchen. So he went upstairs and roamed around, looked under the bed, and idly went through Garth's wardrobe. There was nothing but mining clothes except for the suit he wore a few days ago in Shagalice. Now that Oliver looked at it, he realized that the style was rather outdated, and not by just a few seasons.
Garth had worn it to impress whatever man was assigned to him, or perhaps to reassure the man that Garth was a gentleman. Oliver stroked his fingers down the arm, and marveled at how well-kept it was.
From the wardrobe, he moved on to the chest at the end of the bed. The wood has the same perpetually soaked, puffed look that Monarus trees seemed to have, so Oliver guessed that Garth had built the chest himself at some point.
Inside, the first layer were some quilts. But beneath those…jackpot. There was a stack of loose-sheaf paper and some pencils tied together with a band. But before Oliver pulled them out, another stack caught his eye. It was an assortment of pamphlets and newspapers, all printed on Monarus, and most of them directed at freemen and miners. One particular heading caught his eye: We're Getting Brides.
He sat down on the bed, and scanned the contents of the pamphlet. In simple language, it read,
The Eovican party has voted in favor of sending "brides" to Monarus. What does this mean? Freemen on Monarus may get a bride. What is a bride? A bride is a man given to a freeman. Why? For comfort. The bride will be yours. The bride cannot leave you, and must depend on you, so you must take care of the bride.
This is what we've been waiting for. Brides cannot own land, brides cannot earn money, brides cannot spend money without permission.
Oliver stopped reading, and let the paper fall to his knee as he looked up at the mirror across from him.
The pamphlet had been written two years beforehand. For two years, the miners on Monarus had been waiting for these almost mythical brides to appear. When Andrew had explained the concept to Oliver on the transport ship, he'd found the whole thing ridiculous. Who would want a virtual stranger suddenly ensconced in their home like a hopeless baby? A human being they'd suddenly be responsible for to feed and take care of? It had made no sense.
Outside, the rain was pounding against the window.
Oliver sat there until the shrill ringing in his ears became too much to bear, and then he stood up. In his ransacking of the house, he hadn't found any form of music player—no radio, no speakers, nothing. He tried to imagine Garth in this cabin alone for years, in total silence.
On Ohran, there was no silence. You couldn't spit without hitting someone on the cheek. There were people everywhere.
"Well," Oliver said to himself. His voice sounded weird.
He grabbed the blank paper and pencils, and loped downstairs. At the kitchen table, he scribbled a list of chores he figured needed to be done. Simple things like washing clothes, cooking food, sweeping. Garth had mentioned cabin upkeep, and Oliver knew a thing or two about plumbing, so he added that.
In the end, he really needed to get on Garth's good side. Since the night before, there hadn't been a single mention about a trip to Shagalice. Oliver decided that harping on the subject too much would make Garth suspicious, so instead he'd wait until Garth broached the topic himself.
On the drive back, the hauler moaned in protest under its load of tesac rock. Garth gripped the wheel, careful to keep a cautious pace. He kept hitting the acceleration a little too hard, would ease off, but then after a few moments passed, would do it again.
Seven hours had passed since he'd said goodbye to Ollie in the kitchen. All manner of bad things could have happened in the meantime. Garth didn't know what the worst would be. Kidnapped? Ran? Got hurt? For some reason, despite knowing Garth himself had survived alone in the woods just fine for years, he couldn't fathom how Oliver would manage.
"Man, oh man," he mumbled to himself, wiping at his forehead.
He rounded the bend leading up to his cabin and squinted through the dark. When he saw lights in the distance, he felt a little better.
He parked the hauler under the enclosure he built to keep rain from sluicing over the rock all night. Covered in dirt and grime, he frowned down at himself, but he was too chilled and weary to go straight to the tub. Oh well.
His boots squelched through the mud as he walked, threatening to pop right off his feet. He soldiered on, gazing up at the bright and cheery windows of the cabin he'd constructed entirely by himself. His chest warmed at the idea of Ollie nestled and safe inside because Garth had provided like a good man.
It was Ham Venn who'd introduced the idea of taking care of someone to Garth more than a decade ago. Starved, frozen, and broken, Garth had been sitting alone in the dark hospital ward when Venn came in, sat beside him on his cot, and rested a hand on his shoulder. "You have to work hard and not run away, Garth," he'd said. And then he described freedom, having enough to eat, having money—but not only that, having enough to feed another hungry mouth, to build a family.
As he thought about how Ollie was his family, Garth clutched the railing of the stairs leading up to the porch and slowly made his way up. The wood creaked under his boots. Before he reached the last step, the front door swung open.
Shrouded in firelight, Ollie looked especially welcoming. He was wearing the knit sweater and slacks Garth had purchased for him in Shagalice, and his longish hair was tousled like he'd been taking a nap. "Garth," he said, teeth showing as he smiled.
Frozen, Garth tried to figure out what he recognized in that tone. But then he did: relief.
"Man, look at you," Oliver said, bouncing out of the house to grip Garth's arms. "Do you want to clean up?"
"M' kind of cold for that," Garth mumbled in reply, glancing at the tub sitting on the porch.
Oliver followed his line of sight and hummed in agreement. He was still holding Garth's arms. "Well, come inside anyway, but leave the boots out here."
"Okay." Garth shucked his boots off, his hand resting on Oliver's shoulder for support. As an extra precaution, he unclipped the hooks on his overalls and struggled out of them.
He heard Oliver snort. "Let me help you." And just like that, his hand slipped below Garth's waistline to keep his pants from getting tugged down with the rubber.
They were standing very close together, foreheads nearly touching. Hesitantly, Garth looked up a little and then pressed his lips against the corner of Oliver's eye, letting his hand come around to cup at the small of Oliver's back.
"You were gone forever," Oliver said, still working at Garth's overalls.
"Does mining really take that long?"
"If the day's gonna be worth it." Garth stepped out of the rubber pooled around his feet, and herded Ollie back into the house before he could get too cold, and shut the door behind them. "Tesac's worth quite a bit, but I have to do the work to see that money."
"Yeah, I understand." Oliver was now running the tips of his fingers through Garth's hair, working out the knots. He hadn't put a single inch of space between them, and Garth had yet to be able to get past the entryway.
"You're sticking to me," Garth said. It was almost a question.
It was also stupid.
Oliver immediately drew back a step, awareness flashing in his eyes. "Sorry…"
Garth was paralyzed with how stupid that had been, and his tongue was a dead slab in his mouth. All he could do was gawk at Oliver's retreating form. But then Oliver stumbled a little, and Garth's brained revved back into gear.
He caught him by the waist, and drew him in until there wasn't any air left between them. Pressed up like that, Garth could feel Oliver's heartbeat pounding away. "Are you scared?" Garth asked.
"No…" Oliver relaxed a little in his arms. And then he did more than that, he hugged Garth back and exhaled with contentment. "I've been bored all day," he muttered. "There's no one here, there's nothing to do. I finished writing the list of chores an hour after you left and then slept all day."
Garth grunted his disapproval.
Then, without thinking, he landed a harmless little swat on Oliver's butt.
His bride gasped.
"No sleeping during the day," Garth said before Oliver could get a complaint in. "You'll be up all night while I'm trying to sleep, and that will just really fuck our schedule up." He leaned away a little, and cupped the back of Oliver's head to make sure they were making eye-contact. "Understand?"
Oliver's lips were thin, his face contorted in anger. He obviously want to spew a whole laundry list of cuss words at Garth. But then he bit his bottom lip and nodded.
Garth let go of him because he could tell the last thing Oliver wanted after losing face like that was Garth clutching at him. "I'm gonna clean up and then we can play some board games, all right?"
"I'm not a kid."
Oliver pinned him with a steady gaze. "I'm not a kid. You don't have to humor me after you've chastised me so I'll be in a better mood. I understand the logic of us keeping the same sleep schedule."
His voice had taken a certain snippy tone that was confusing Garth. Standoffish, that's what it was. "You ain't get to sneak off and ignore me all night cause you're pissy," Garth told him.
Oliver scoffed, crossing his arms over his chest as he avoided Garth's eyes. "That's not what I'm doing."
"I'll smack your butt till its cherry red if you try to play any games with me."
"I get to be annoyed!" Oliver's eyes widened and he clamped his mouth shut as his cheeks went red. Obviously he hadn't meant for that outburst to happen.
"You're annoyed because I bruised your damn pride," Garth replied calmly. "But the sooner you accept that I just know more about living here than you do, that you have to listen to what I tell you, the sooner you won't feel that annoyance anymore. It'll make sense, listening to me. And you ain't gonna be any lesser for it."
He watched Oliver's testy body language loosen. "That's easy for you to say Garth…"
"Sure, because I've already lived it."
Oliver looked at him curiously.
Garth held his arms out. "I was born on Ohran same as you. I came here as innocent as a babe, same as you. But I had to learn. I had to shut up and learn."
"So you're saying eventually I'll have learned enough that you won't order me around?"
"Yeah, eventually. We'll be partners."
Garth yearned for the time he and Oliver could have discussions over when the right season to hunt was, or what needed fixing, or which merchant Garth should sell the tesac rock to. Just imagining the weight of surviving alone—of handling every single responsibility alone—being lifted from his shoulders was almost enough to bring tears to his eyes.
"Partners…" Oliver seemed to consider the word.
Garth let him think on that, heading over to the sink as he unbuttoned his work shirt.
He and Oliver seemed to be able to overcome their little spats faster with each day, which was good. Ideally, Oliver would learn not to fight over every little thing, but that seemed to be part of who he was—questioning the direction at every turn. But if he wanted to carry on with that, he'd just have to deal with a few smacks here or there. Garth didn't have time for debate during a hunt, or raiders near their land, or other situations that required fast action.
Hanging the shirt on the kitchen chair, Garth then switched the hot water on and started scrubbing at his chest with a rag. He ran the cloth over his work-earned muscles, and wondered if Oliver found them appealing. He glanced over his shoulder.
Oliver was watching him, eyes dark. He blinked, his blush returning.
"You can touch me any time you want," Garth rumbled. "I'm yours just as much as you're mine."
He could tell Oliver needed a little more coaxing. Garth returned to scrubbing himself and said idly, "Oh, and I filled the hauler today. That probably means a trip to Shagalice in a day or two, once I get hold of a buyer."
"Really?" Oliver's voice was breathless, and also right next to Garth. "Will you take me with you?"
On one hand, Garth didn't like this quid pro quo thing they seemed to be developing—Oliver only being friendly when he wanted something. But on the other hand, Garth hadn't missed the way Oliver had clung to him after being alone all day. That had nothing to do with wanting something from Garth.
So maybe it was fine spoiling him. And so what if Oliver got more cuddly in return? "Yeah, of course," Garth replied, his voice low. He turned to Oliver and held his arms out, waiting.
Obediently, Oliver slipped into his hold.
Gentle thoughts were replaced with a deep, thoughtless feeling. Garth's body, strong as it was, coiled as it was around Oliver's slighter form, felt constrained. His fingers ached to penetrate under clothing, to work Oliver into a more docile position so that he and Garth could meld together in heat and sweat and need. A baser instinct called for action, demanded that Garth stake a claim.
But Garth knew he was a patient man. This sudden need to fuck Oliver harshly, to drive into him and make him grunt and moan, was palpably overwhelming. There had to be a reason why he felt so agitated, why he couldn't just feel content that Oliver was slowly warming up to him.
There in Garth's arms, Oliver's expression was unreachable.
And because of that, Garth started to feel a creeping fear.