by London Lampy
By the time Jack reached the street where the Costa's shop was located the sky had started to darken to night, the first stars were out and the street lamps had sparked into life. The shop was in darkness, the window blinds had been drawn down and the sign on the door had been turned to "closed". Jack was hoping Effie might be around and that he could ask her to go up and see if Exit was there for him. He peered through the glass of the shop's door, cupping his hands around his eyes to see if he could see her in the back, then tried rapping on glass, but to no avail. The only evidence he saw of the Costa's was their large ginger tomcat Jinks, slinking around the side of the building, off on his own mysterious feline business.
There was nothing left for it but to climb the metal staircase, knock on the door and hope that it was Exit who answered. Even though Jack had a key there was no way he was risking letting himself in again, not after last time, and he wouldn't be surprised if Topher had had the lock changed anyway. At the top Jack stopped for a moment, staring at the door, thinking through what he was going to say if Topher opened it. He could come up with nothing better than "is Exit there?" which he knew was lame and sounded like he was a kid asking if his friend could come out to play, but it was all he had.
After he knocked it took a long while for the door to be answered, so long that he was about to try again and he had his hand raised ready when the door swung open to revel Topher. He was dressed in a short, white cotton bath robe that only just covered his crotch, his dark hair damp and flattened against his scalp. When he saw who it was at the door he frowned, and before Jack could ask his prepared question Topher spoke.
"Oh, it is you," he said in what sounded to Jack to be less than friendly tones, although Jack was willing to concede that anything said in a Surosian accent could sound standoffish.
"Yeah..." Jack ran his hand over his head. "Look, sorry to disturb you but is..."
"He is not here," Topher interrupted before he could finish.
"Oh." Jack was briefly stumped for what to say next, and they stared at one another for a few seconds in silence. "So...where is he? I know he's not at work because I tried there first."
"I do not know," Topher replied, and Jack was surprised to find that Topher both looked and sounded worried.
"You don't know where he is?" Jack echoed, feeling a small pulse of fear. "Has something happened to him?"
"Evening before last he went off to meet up with Clearwater," Topher shrugged. "He has not come home yet."
"What?" Jack said, feeling the fear grow. As Topher explained what had happened Jack tried to decide whether he needed to worry or not. It didn't sound like Exit was in imminent danger, he had said he would be back in two or three days and that wasn't up yet, but Topher seemed quite upset about it, and to his surprise Jack found himself wanting to reassure him.
"He's good at looking after himself, he'll be fine. He wouldn't have gone if he thought it'd put him in danger," Jack said once Topher had finished.
"Maybe," Topher shrugged again, neither looking or sounding convinced.
"When he gets back can you tell him I was here?" Topher nodded in reply. "I'll go now..." Since Exit wasn't there his next priority was to find something to eat. "Where's the best place to get dinner around here?"
"You are going out to eat?" Topher suddenly looked very interested.
"Can I come?"
"Why? You don't even like me?" Jack blurted out, caught off guard by the question.
"Because I am hungry and there is no food in the flat, and what makes you think I do not like you? I do not even know you."
"I..." Jack was thrown by this. "Because the last time I was here you called me a fucking cunt and told me to go and stick my head under a moving tram."
"Yes, but last time you were here you had let yourself into my home and started shouting at me for being here, you were the one who was rude first. It is you who does not like me."
"Yeah...sorry about that, it's just that I wasn't expecting you, I shouldn't have reacted the way I did." Jack realized that maybe going out to dinner together could be a good chance to start again, to get to know Topher a little. It couldn't hurt, and besides if he didn't eat soon he was pretty sure that his stomach would start to digest itself. "You can come and get something to eat with me if you want, but you probably need to put some clothes on first."
"Yes," Topher agreed, looking down at the robe. "I will be back in one minute." He shut the door and left Jack standing at the top of the stairs. Something else then occurred to Jack, he hadn't got anywhere to sleep tonight. He knew that he could stay with Vio, but she lived on the other side of the city and might not be home either as she wasn't expecting him. When Topher came back out, dressed in black trousers and a blue shirt that Jack was pretty sure he'd seen Exit wearing in the past, he asked him where the nearest hotel was.
"Down by the tram stop, but if you want to you can stay here," he offered.
"Thanks...but I don't stay in the flat any more, do I?" he reminded Topher.
"That is because you want to fuck Exit, and you cannot if I am here too. But there is no Exit to fuck right now so there is no problem with staying in the flat."
"I guess," Jack replied, trying not to sound amused at Topher's roughly accurate assessment of the situation. "I think I might take you up on that."
Jack had been to this particular restaurant previously with Exit during the time he was staying with him after they had returned from the Northern Continent. The blissful time before Topher had reappeared in Exit's life. It was the sort of place you took a date to, indeed every occupied table seemed to contain a couple looking lovingly at one another in the glow of the small candle that was on the table top. The light level of the place was low, giving it a feeling of romance and intimacy and somewhere there was a record playing because Jack could hear soft floaty music drifting in the background. When they first walked in he had considered suggesting that they went somewhere else because this seemed like a wildly inappropriate place for the two of them to be eating, but a smiling waiter had swiftly seated them and brought them a basket of bread rolls. Jack had consumed two of them in the time it took Topher to order a bottle of wine.
They perused the menu in silence that was only broken by Jack apologising for finishing all of the rolls. After the waiter had brought the wine and taken their orders, with Topher interrogating him about the freshness of the fish, Jack realised that he was going to have to find something to make polite conversation about before the food arrived.
"I'll go back first thing in the morning," he said, wondering if maybe he should have opted for a hotel or Vio's house instead. It had now occurred to him that it was going to feel a bit awkward spending the night on the couch when Topher would be sleeping in the bed a few feet away.
"Fine," Topher replied, filling his own then Jack's wine glass, and seeming to put twice as much into Jack's. "You really should stop coming here unannounced."
"I was not unannounced," Jack retorted. "I sent him a telegram via Municipal Works, there's no way I could have known that he wasn't going to be there to receive it. And I came up here for a good reason, there's something important I need to talk to him about, this isn't just a social visit." Jack took a large swig of his wine then put the glass back on the table.
"What?" Topher asked, picking up the bottle and topping up Jack's glass.
Jack leant back his chair and looked at Topher, unsure if he should tell him about Captain Samuels' offer or not. He'd probably be delighted at the possibility of him returning to the Northern Continent.
"Well?" Topher demanded after a few seconds.
"My old captain wrote to me and asked me if I wanted to rejoin the regiment."
"On the Northern Continent?"
"Yes," Jack nodded.
"And you are considering it?"
"Maybe. That's what I need to talk to Exit about, find out what he thinks."
"I can tell you what he would think, he would not want you to," Topher replied, sounding serious.
"A couple of months ago I would have said you were right; I'm not so sure now." Jack looked at Topher, hoping his meaning was clear.
"For fuck's sake," Topher sat straight up in his chair, glaring across the table at him. "Do you have any idea how fucking terrified he has been that you are going to do exactly what you are suggesting? If you go you will break his heart."
"You don't want me to go?" Jack asked incredulously.
"I do not want him to be hurt, and you going would hurt him, therefore I do not want you to go."
It had never occurred to Jack that Topher might love Exit just as much as he did. He hadn't wanted to break the two of them up for exactly the same reason Topher was citing now, he didn't want to see Exit hurt either. Jack took this in, draining his glass then refilling it from the now rapidly empting bottle. He hated to admit that Topher was right, but he was.
He mulled this over in his mind, and before either of them spoke again their food arrived, steak for Jack with a couple of extra side dishes, and fish for Topher. As the waiter was placing this on the table Topher ordered another bottle of wine. The bread rolls had taken the very edge off Jack's hunger, but only to the extent that he was no longer inclined to want to grab passing plates of food from the waiter, he was still hungry and he dived straight in and attacked the steak. After a few mouthfuls he noticed that Topher wasn't eating, instead he seemed to be cutting all of his food into bite sized pieces and Jack watched with curiosity until he'd finished doing this, at which point Topher shifter his fork from his left hand into his right and began to eat.
"Why did you do that?" Jack asked, as the waiter arrived with the second bottle of wine.
"Because it is the proper, polite way to eat. People in the Twin Islands eat like savages."
"We do not, cutting all of your food up first isn't polite, it's just odd."
"Not where I come from it isn't and it could be a lot worse. At least I do not go to restaurants with a long list of foods I do not or will not eat then complain that there is nothing on the menu I want."
Jack poured wine into his glass trying to work out what Topher meant by this, then the penny dropped and he couldn't help laughing. When it came to making conversation he realised that there was one very obvious thing they had in common.
"It's a lot worse since he stopped eating meat isn't it?" Jack said. "And he was bad enough before, but now he hardly eats anything that's not been dipped in chocolate."
"That is because he is a monkey, they taste sweet things more than we do, at least that is what my boss told me."
"You shouldn't call him a monkey, it's offensive," Jack frowned.
"I can do it, it is only offensive when other people do it," Topher said, refilling his own glass half way then topping up Jack's once again to the brim.
"I sort of get why he's really fussy about food though," Jack said thoughtfully after he'd eaten a few more mouthfuls, drunk some more wine and once again had his glass refilled. "It's because of the crap he used to get given in the orphanage. Even I didn't like the food in there much, and I'll eat anything." This was pretty much true. In his time as a solider on active duties he'd sometimes been reduced to eating what he could catch or find, and the result of this was that if it walked, crawled, swum or flew he'd probably attempted to eat it.
"I had forgotten that you were in the orphanage too, what was it like? He does not talk about it often."
"I wasn't there for very long," Jack replied. "But it was...shitty really. Now I'm older I can understand why the food was so terrible and everything was old and broken, they had to make a little bit of money go a long way. However none of that would have been so bad if the nuns weren't all..." he thought of the kindly, young, freckled faced Sister Mackintosh. "...or mostly all a bunch of sour old bitches who hated children."
"I do not think that would have been a nice place to grow up," Topher said with a small frown.
"Neither do I," Jack agreed, realising that the second bottle of wine was now three quarters empty and signalling to the waiter that they wanted another. It was hard to keep track of it because Topher kept refilling his glass every time he took a sip. "And the really bad thing is it doesn't have to be like that. I didn't have any parents and the woman who raised me didn't have much to spare but I had a great childhood until she died. I can't imagine how it could have been any better even if I'd had a mum and dad and been rich."
Topher gave him a look that Jack didn't understand, the waiter came over with their wine and Topher took the bottle out of his hand, filled his own glass to the brim took a long drink then passed the bottle to Jack. "Where did you grow up?" Jack asked after eating some more of his food.
"In Surosa," Topher replied flatly.
"Yeah, I know that, but what part?"
"The north, on the coast."
"Was it nice?" he asked, spearing the final piece of the steak with his fork and wondering if he was still hungry enough to order another. It had been good, and a pleasant change from army catering.
"You mean the place or my childhood? The place was nice, it probably still is, my life was nice until my father shot himself and the town's people burned down our home then drove us out. After that my little sister was murdered and my mother drank herself to death, then it was not so nice."
"Oh," Jack stopped with his fork half way to his mouth, "I'm sorry." He now remembered Exit telling him that Topher had lost his family as a result of the war, but he hadn't gone into details. The details, as it turned out, were pretty brutal. Jack looked at Topher, he suddenly appeared very young and vulnerable, and Jack realised that the last bit of his animosity toward him had just drained away. Swiftly changing the subject Jack found himself talking to Topher about all the places he had been over the past few years. As part of the pirate crew Topher had been to some of the same places and they compared notes as they finished up the last of their food, and a good bit more wine.
Jack had to admit to himself that Topher really was very attractive, and that if people in the restaurant took them for a couple he didn't mind very much. A few months ago, when he was single, if he'd seen Topher in a bar he would have probably offered to buy him a drink, and with any luck would have taken him home with him.
Jack found that as they were talking he was drinking at a steady pace and soon the third bottle of wine was empty. "Do you want another?" Jack asked, pointing to the bottle.
"Yes. You are paying for all this aren't you?"
"Um...I suppose," Jack replied. He hadn't really thought about it.
"Good, because I do not have any money on me."
"Then I'd better hadn't I? Do you want dessert too, or are you just going to drink?"
"I will have some ice cream if they have got any. Are you worried that I cannot hold my liquor and that I will end up puking?"
Jack laughed. "No, but it has been a while since I went out to dinner with anyone who wasn't under the table after two drinks."
"It is another monkey thing," Topher informed him.
"I know, he told me. I think he was really happy to find out that there was a good reason for being such a lightweight."
As the waiter cleared their plates away Jack stretched his legs out under the table; being very tall he was often uncomfortable in a world designed for average sized people. He quickly realized that one of his legs was resting against one of Topher's. The polite thing to do would be to move it back again, but he was comfortable, and if Topher really objected he could always tuck his own much shorter legs under his chair.
Topher ordered his ice cream and Jack ordered yet more wine. He was starting to feel a little drunk but it was a pleasant kind of warm, relaxed drunk. Topher was surprisingly good company, he'd rather be out to dinner with Exit but Topher wasn't a bad substitute and the evening was turning out to be an awful lot more pleasant than he would have ever predicted dinner with his rival could be.
They chatted about Exit's job and his colleagues as they waited for Topher's desert to arrive. Jack was interested to learn about Topher's feelings towards Vin and how they had changed after Vin had rather forcefully attempted to seduce him the night he got shot. In Jack's mind this just served to affirm his opinion of Vin as an utter and complete unredeemable bastard. They both agreed that they couldn't understand why Exit still liked the man and would often defend him against their criticisms.
The wine and ice cream turned up together, the ice cream was served in a small metal bowl that had condensation forming on the sides from its cold contents. Jack found himself looking at Topher as he spooned his desert slowly into his mouth. Topher had one of the nicest shaped mouths that Jack had ever seen, his bottom lip was pleasingly full and it looked just right for kissing or sucking into his own mouth. The pink tip of Topher's tongue came out to lick the spoon clean causing Jack to stop with his wine glass at his own lips and stare.
"Do you want some?" Topher asked, and for a second Jack entirely misunderstood his meaning, then Topher scooped some more ice cream onto his spoon and held it out in Jack's direction.
"No!...I mean no thanks, I don't like it...I don't like ice cream," he said, shaking his head to try to dislodge the sudden image of Topher licking him intimately that had formed there. What the hell was his mind doing?
"Oh well," Topher shrugged. "The offer is there if you do want some."
Jack doubted that Topher had any idea of how what he was saying sounded to him, all Topher was doing was innocently offering to share his ice cream with him, nothing more. Jack's problem was simply that he hadn't had sex in a few weeks. He decided it had to be that and nothing more that was making him see a sexual come on where there couldn't possibly be one. It had to be.
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