by London Lampy
The coin spun in the air catching the afternoon sunlight that was slanting through the high windows of the railway station's waiting room. Heads or tails? Jack caught it in his fist then without looking at it he flipped the coin back into the air and caught it again.
Heads or tails he asked himself, not even knowing which side of the coin represented which choice. Heads yes, tails no, or should that be the other way around? Heads yes, he'd take up Sargent Samuels' offer of returning to his old post over on the Northern Continent and admit defeat, tails no, he'd stay here on the Twin Islands and try to make it work with Exit. Tails for that, that made sense. He flipped the coin a third time, caught it and slapped it down onto the back of one of his badly scarred hands, keeping it tightly covered with his other hand. He didn't dare look, he didn't want to look, it was much too much of an important decision to be decided on something so trivial as this, but he felt that if he saw the coin and how it had fallen he'd be compelled to abide by it. He was saved by the train arriving and he closed his fist around the coin and dropped it into his pocked unseen.
Jack boarded and found a seat next to the window, at this time of day the train was quiet and he was one of only three passengers in his carriage. He could never make the train journey to Parnell without thinking back to the first time he'd done it, coming up on five years ago now, when he was being taken to the orphanage along with his adopted brothers and sisters after the sudden death of their guardian. He'd never been further than ten miles away from his home village before that and the world was large and strange, but as the oldest one of Nanny's children he'd had to push down his own feelings of fear and grief for the sake of the others. He often wished that Nanny was still alive, recently more than ever. She'd been a wise and sensible woman, not a person prone to judgements or prejudices, and he longed to get her advice on his current situation. It was hardly a thing he could ask any of his colleges about, he'd happily talk to his sister Dana, who was a level headed girl and gave good advice, but as she made her living on the flying trapeze in a travelling circus he rarely knew where she was from month to month. While he saw his other sister Jane fairly regularly as she still lived in his home village of Dovedale she was still young and unworldly, and had never truly come to terms with his sexual preference.
The irony of wanting to talk to Nanny wasn't lost on him. If she was still alive he would have never been sent to the orphanage, and if he'd never had been sent to the orphanage he'd never have met Exit, and if he'd never met Exit he wouldn't be in this situation in the first place. Not that Jack regretted meeting Exit, he'd been the most beautiful thing Jack had ever seen then, and now too. He had thought that his memory might have been skewed by the years and by the heightened emotions of being fifteen years old and falling in love with under impossible circumstances. However when he'd seen Exit again, in the the most unlikely place imaginable, he was still just as beautiful as the Exit of his memory. For a while things had been really good, although in the back of his mind Jack had always had the nagging feeling that something that good couldn't last, that he couldn't be this lucky, and he'd been proved right.
He had thought that if he had a rival it was Vin, a man he detested, and despite all his promises a man Jack knew that Exit was still attracted to. He knew Vin's type, he was the type who wanted to possess rather than to love, a man who couldn't bear having his "possession" taken from him, a man who would go to any underhanded means to get it back. At the outside there was also Rylance Jonas, Jack had only met him the once but he had actually ended up feeling rather sorry for him. Unlike Vin Ry wasn't a bad sort, a bit soft and spoilt maybe, but he was so clearly still in love with Exit it was almost painful to witness, although as a very wealthy man he had a lot of time and resources at his fingertips to get Exit back, and that did worry Jack a little. Not that he thought Exit was likely to be swayed by expensive gifts, he never seemed to have much interest in material things, but Jonas still presented a small worry none the less. Topher however had never even figured in Jack's concerns.
He very vaguely remembered Exit telling him about Topher when he'd related the the extraordinary story of the months he'd spent living amongst pirates. A story that if Jack didn't know that Exit wasn't prone to either lying or exaggeration he would have found hard to believe. Even then Topher hadn't been a major part of his story. The pirate captain had caused a spike of jealousy in Jack, but his mind dismissed the boy that Exit had shared a room with as unimportant, brushing it into a corner where unimportant things went to fade away until they were forgotten.
Topher was small, pretty and younger than Exit, in short the very opposite to the kind of person Jack would expect to be competing with for Exit's affections. From the few things that Jack knew about Topher he suspected that he had some of the same kind of vulnerability about him that Exit himself had, something that Jack found appealing, and that he knew many other men did too, but there was his problem. Men like Vin and Ry he understood, he could meet them head on, indeed if Exit had been cheating on him with Vin he would be very tempted to beat the living crap out of the red-headed bastard. While Vin wasn't a large man Jack suspected he'd fight like a terrier when faced with a much larger dog, go in hard and never give up until death or unconsciousness took him. It wouldn't exactly be a fair fight, but Jack wouldn't feel an ounce of guilt about doing it. However there was no way he could do that to Topher, it would be like picking a fight with a kitten.
There was also the fact that unlike Vin Topher didn't seem interested in possession, at least if Exit was to be believed, and he was unlikely to be lying. Topher was apparently quite happy for Jack to continue his relationship with Exit in more or less the same way as before, which made Jack feel like he had been put in the position of being the unreasonable one. And there was also the fact that Exit was clearly very much in love with Topher. He didn't talk about Topher often in Jack's presence, but when he did Jack couldn't fail to notice the way his mouth turned up at the corners or the way his golden eyes lit up, and that was pretty much the worst thing of all. He couldn't be angry at Exit for having someone in his life who made him that happy, and he didn't want to destroy that happiness either, if he did how could he claim to love him? To attempt to break Topher and Exit apart just because he didn't like their relationship would be nothing but selfishness, he knew that, but he also knew that things couldn't continue as they were either. He loved Exit more than he'd ever loved anyone, and a couple of months ago he'd been able to imagine them being together for the rest of their lives, but now he could see that future belonging to Topher not to him. At best he could be an occasional interloper.
No matter which way he looked at it it seemed the only thing to do was to remove himself from the equation. He hadn't wanted to do this yet, he was still prepared for something to give, or to get better, but then two days ago he'd received a letter from his old captain, Captain Samuels, to ask him if he was ready to go back to being a proper solider. Apparently things weren't working out with Jack's replacement and Samuels wanted Jack back. It was a tempting offer, training recruits was a dull job at best and the only reason he'd stuck at it was because the training barracks were just a few hours away from Parnell by train, but perhaps that wasn't going to matter for very much longer.
Jack had swapped his shifts around and taken some unpaid time off so that he could go and see Exit sooner rather than later. This time he wasn't taking any chances with turning up unannounced though, he'd sent a telegram ahead to Exit care of Municipal Works as they were able to receive telegrams in the office there. The telegraph informed Exit he was coming to the city, and gave him instructions of where and when to meet Jack. At least this way Jack was in no danger of accidentally encountering Topher again, and he planned to take Exit out to dinner so that they could talk to one another free from interruptions by anyone else, which was bound to happen if they went to Vio's house. Jack liked Vio and was grateful to her for giving him an open invitation to stay with her whenever he was in the city, but she was a forceful woman with strong opinions, and whatever happened it had to be just between him and Exit alone.
As the train got closer to the city the carriage began to fill up, the distances between the stops became less and the green spaces shrank until they were nothing more than pocket handkerchief sized back yards. Jack had grown up in the countryside many miles from the nearest town, but after years of travelling he was just as at home in the middle of urban sprawl as he was on a farm, or for that matter in a forest or a desert. He'd developed the knack of settling into new surroundings almost as soon as he set foot in them.
The train pulled into Parnell central station and Jack disembarked. Despite the circumstances he still felt the familiar spark of sexual excitement that he felt every time he knew that he was going to be seeing Exit. His mind may have been undecided about their future, but his body only wanted one thing. Whatever else was happening he always desired Exit, he had a kind of sensuality about him that Jack doubted he was aware of, but it acted powerfully on Jack's libido, and it wasn't all one way either, Exit seemed to want him just as much in return. The sex between them had always been good, ever since the very first time when they were just a pair of fumbling kids hidden away in a dusty forgotten attic somewhere in the orphanage. Jack hadn't been a virgin then, although Exit had, but he'd been dazzled by the sight of his naked golden skinned body, and the tail. Jack had spent many happy hours indulging himself in dirty fantasies about that ever since.
He had arrived in the city at the hight of the evening rush hour and had to shoulder his way out of the station. Going against the tide of the hot and weary workers heading back home to the suburbs for a night's sleep before getting the next morning to do the same journey in reverse for another working day. In his telegram Jack had said for them to meet at six o'clock at a famous Parnell land mark, a large fountain depicting the god of the seas and his children, riding in a chariot pulled by dolphins. It was a place where during the day people went to throw in pennies and make a wish, and and during the night many a drunken dunking happened.
Jack was a little early and he considered getting himself a snack while he waited, but he didn't as he knew he'd be eating soon so he found himself a place to sit on the lip of the fountain's basin and waited for Exit to arrive. Six o'clock came and went, although he wasn't unduly bothered when Exit hadn't arrived. Exit wasn't always the best at timekeeping and he could have easily been held up at work. By six thirty a worm of worry had started to wriggle into Jack's thoughts, what if Exit hadn't received his telegram? What if he'd got the telegram and had simply decided not to come? Jack tried to push his concerns away, thirty minutes wasn't that late and Exit would probably appear any second now, sprinting down the busy street at high speed, dodging between the other pedestrians, full of apologies for his lateness. Another thirty minutes passed and the shadows were starting to lengthen, Jack had been sitting on the lip of the fountain for over an hour now and his rear end was starting to go numb, he now had to decide whether to keep waiting or to come up with another plan. He climbed up and stood where he'd been sitting, looking around the area to see if Exit wasn't waiting somewhere nearby and they'd managed to miss one another. But he could see no sign of his distinctive blue black hair and after a couple of minutes a passing policeman told Jack to get down before he fell in.
He jumped back down to the pavement with a sigh, it was now quarter past seven and he was going to have to accept that for whatever reason Exit wasn't going to show. He was seriously hungry now but he wasn't going to stop to get something to eat. Although few things in life were more important to Jack than his stomach, finding out why Exit hadn't met him was one of them.
The closest place to start was the Municipal Works headquarters. It was only a short walk from the fountain and Jack made his way over there trying to ignore the growling noises his stomach was making. It was an ostentatious building, designed to impress any visitor, the large gilt and marble entrance lobby screamed that this was a company that made money, lots of it, and wasn't afraid to show its wealth off. While the building never truly closed by this time in the evening it was pretty quiet. Jack glanced across at the long marble reception desk, it was currently being staffed by a pretty young woman with thick glossy chestnut coloured hair pulled back into a ponytail and a brownish-green female visk in a virulently orange head wrap and matching robes. He set a path to the girl knowing that he had a reasonable chance of being able to sweet talk her, while he'd have as much chance doing that to the visk as he would a brick wall, but another visitor beat him to it so he had no choice but to talk to the lizard.
"Can I help you?" she asked, looking him up and down with her pure black eyes.
"Yes...I'm looking for someone who works here, his name is Exit Bryce."
"Do you have an appointment with Mr Bryce?"
"Not as such, we were meant to meet one another at six, but he never arrived and I was wondering if he'd got delayed and was still here." Jack felt impatient, he just wanted to know if Exit was actually in the building or not, but he knew better than to let his irritation show, she was only doing her job.
"I'm afraid we can't give out information of that nature, but if you would like to leave him a message I can send it up to his floor."
"Thanks," he sighed, it was better than nothing. "Can you tell him that Jack is in the lobby waiting for him."
"Jack who?" she asked, picking up a pencil and in readiness to jot his message down on a sheet of company headed note paper.
"Bryce, Jack Bryce." She looked up at him, undoubtedly she knew who Exit was, and she was now wondering why they shared the same second name as it was obviously biologically impossible that they were related in any way.
"That's the whole message," he said pointedly as she began to write his words down. He wasn't going to explain it to a complete stranger, but the answer was really very simple. All the children from the the orphanage who had no family names of their own were given Bryce after the god the place was dedicated to. If he hadn't been sent off to join the army directly from there he probably would have come up with a second name of his own choosing, and if the army hadn't insisted on him having two names he might not have bothered at all, plenty of people got by in life with just the one, but he'd been stuck with Bryce. Recently though he'd come to rather like it, or at least rather like the fact that he shared it with Exit, it was almost as if they were married.
"He's on the fourteenth isn't he?" the visk asked. Jack nodded in reply and she took the message, rolled it up and placed it inside a battered cylindrical aluminium container, screwed the lid on the container tightly then went to a panel behind her that had a dozen or so capped brass tubes slightly wider than the cylinder, each one with a different number engraved onto it. She uncapped the vacuum tube marked with a fourteen, fed the cylinder into the bottom of it, and it was sucked out of her hand with a thunking noise. Jack watched it go, hoping that when it reached it's destination someone would notice the bell ringing to signal its arrival.
Jack paced around the lobby, listing to the echoing noises his boots were making on the marble floor. Every time one of the elevators behind the security barrier opened he'd peer at it hopefully, but none of them contained Exit. After ten long minutes of this the visk called him back to the desk.
"He's not here," she said, showing him her original note which had been returned via the vacuum tube system with those exact words scrawled across the bottom in ink pen.
"Could you send another note up asking where he is?"
"No, I'm sorry. If Mr Bryce isn't here then I can't request that anyone tells you where he is..."
"Because you're not allowed to give out information of that nature," Jack finished her sentence for her.
Back outside the sun had turned orange and it was beginning to drop out of sight behind the city's tall buildings. If Exit wasn't at work at this time of day then he was likely to be back at his flat above the Costa's shop. Jack ran a hand over his shaved head feeling the stubble under his fingertips, the flat had to be the next place to look, but if he went there he was in danger of Topher being the one who answered the door.
He wasn't exactly proud of the stand up row they'd had before, he now accepted that the whole situation wasn't Topher's fault, but at the time Jack had known none of the facts, he just knew that a strange young man was living with his boyfriend. Not that Topher hadn't given as good as he got, and more, he wouldn't last a minute in a physical fight, but a verbal one was a different matter. While Jack could never think fast enough to get a coherent point across in an argument Topher clearly could, and he had done, then thrown in a few very choice insults, told Jack to get the fuck out of his home then slammed the door in Jack's face and bolted it from the inside. No amount of hammering on it had got him to open it again.
It was getting late, Jack was running out of options, and getting very very hungry too. He had to go to the flat, even if it meant a possible rematch with Topher.
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