by London Lampy
The alarm clock rings, I ignore it. I wasn't truly asleep, simply hanging suspended in that foggy place between waking and sleeping.
"Can you shut that fucking thing up?" Topher mutters crossly. I ignore him too, leaving him to lean across me and turn the clattering alarm off.
"Are you planning on getting out of bed today?" he asks when the room is once again quiet.
"You need to go to work, if you stay off much longer they will fire you."
In reply I pull the covers up tighter around me. Topher slides out of bed and I hear him grumbling about the cold. Summer is now truly over and Autumn has set in, bringing with it sharp winds and chill mornings. I watch him through half closed lids as he goes into the bathroom, then shut my eyes again and try to get back to sleep.
It's been five days since Vin died, and each day is worse than the one that went before it. When I got back to Parnell I went into work and spent the day recounting first to the police, then to Sampson and Zale, the events that led up to the shooting. The next day I got as far as the tram stop, then turned around and came home again. Mid morning Vio appeared at the flat to find out what was going on. I didn't feel much like talking to her, so I told her that I was ill, and after a while she went away.
The next day I didn't even bother trying to leave, I could see no point, I didn't have anywhere I wanted to go. The day after that I didn't even get out of bed except to use the bathroom, and I was still in bed when Topher got home from the bookshop. During the day Vio came around again but this time I didn't answer the door, and after a few minutes of shouting through the letter box she went.
Topher comes out of the bathroom, goes into the kitchen, and I soon smell burnt toast. "I have made you a cup of tea," he calls out from the kitchen. "But I am leaving it in here so you have to get out of bed to get it." I don't bother.
He comes out of the kitchen and sits next to me on the bed, he's wearing just his robe and he takes it off and wriggles back under the covers beside me, putting out a hand and stroking it down my torso.
"Don't," I say, rolling away from him.
"For fuck's sake," he mutters, getting out of bed again. "Jack is trying to get some time off work to come and see you, are you going to be like this when he is here?"
"I'm sure you can keep each other entertained."
"That is not what I meant," he throws back. "At least try to have a shower today, or you will start to smell."
Neither of us speaks again after this, he gets dressed in silence and leaves for work, shutting the door behind him without looking back.
I know I'm being unfair to him, that none of this is his fault, but I can't seem to help it. Once the shock wore off and the worst of the fuss died down I didn't want anyone being close to me, or even being nice to me, because it's my fault that Vin is dead.
I should have realised that Toni was the one Vin was running away from as soon as she knocked on the hotel room door. I should have seen it, I shouldn't have let her in, I should have kept the gun on me like Vin told me to. If I'd done all that he would still be alive.
On that first day back we were able to put together all the missing pieces and make the full picture, and I could clearly see how I contributed to what happened at every turn. It was my breaking into the Abbot house that first put the police onto the fact that something odd was going on. Milden had Mrs Abbot thoroughly search her daughter's room to find out if anything had been taken; Menna's mother hadn't know about the diary, which is hardly surprising, but she had known that her daughter kept all of her letters in a box and she reported the box missing. From that piece of information the police were able to do what we couldn't, they sent someone to the East Island to talk to the school friend who many of the missing letters were from, and it was her who told them that Menna had been sleeping with Vin. From there they spoke to Vin, who admitted that he had been having an affair with the girl, but that isn't a crime in itself, although it made the police look deeper into his home situation as he was now a suspect. They quickly found that his wife had gone missing and had managed to track Toni's whereabouts down to the clinic the very day she escaped.
It turned out that Toni's family had known where she was all along. From what Milden told us it seems that after the night Toni tried and failed to shoot Vin in the Empress theatre she went back to her family home and told her sister everything. Rather than let Toni be arrested the family colluded with Vin, which must have been interesting because by all accounts Toni's father hates him and if he didn't before he would have when he found out what his son-in-law had been up to, and had Toni committed to Dr Morningside's private clinic until she "got better". Toni's name had been on the guest list for Mrs Sampson's gala all along and Vin had simply kept that piece of information to himself. The gods only know how she found her way into that storage room with the hatch that let out into the auditorium, or why she picked that night, although I suspect that she may have been trying to make as big a statement as she could by literally killing her husband in front of an audience.
None of this really matters now though, all that matters is that my stupidity led to his death.
More days pass, each one numb and grey and the same as the last. The company send Dr Morrison round to see me, he diagnoses that I'm suffering from depression and gives me some pills to take. I take one and it makes me feel sick, weird and dizzy, so I throw the rest away.
Jack shows up. Topher goes out to meet him from the station, he wants me to go too, but I don't want to go out. Instead I stay at home and wait for them, staring out of the window at the shifting early Autumn fog.
"Hi," Jack says softly to me when he comes in. He looks like he feels sorry for me, and I hate that. I don't deserve pity, least of all from Jack.
"Hello," I reply.
"Tell him," Topher urges as Jack joins me beside the window, putting his arms around me from behind. It's all I can do not to push him away. I used to love being touched, now I loath it, even if it is Jack or Topher doing the touching.
"It wasn't your fault," Jack whispers into my ear. "Please believe me."
I just shake my head, he doesn't understand, nobody can.
That night when they think I'm asleep they shut themselves in the bathroom together. I'm not angry, they probably need one another, but I wonder if this is the future. Them together, me on the outside.
After one night Jack has to go, and when Topher gets back from seeing him off at the station he looks like he might cry. "Jack will be back soon," I say.
"I know, but when are you coming back?" he replies, looking away.
Over the days I have steady stream of visitors. Vio often calls by, sometimes with Caddy who one day kindly gives me a bunch of yellow flowers to "brighten the place up", as she puts it. I wish they'd all get that I don't deserve their kindness. Effie comes up often with Jinks and cake, Mr Lustrum brings me a book on positive thinking and even Sampson appears unexpectedly one afternoon. He paces around the flat like a caged animal telling me how he's seen this kind of thing before in men after battle, and that the best thing for me to do is to snap out of it and get right back into the saddle. Sampson does bring me one piece of bitter-sweet news too, with Vin gone Vio has finally got the promotion she's always deserved, and despite the circumstances I'm pleased for her.
Thirteen days after Vin's death I'm just starting to feel a little better and am sitting in the kitchen having dinner with Topher. He's made me a banana sandwich, I'm not really hungry, I rarely am these days, but I appreciate the effort. The fact that all my pairs of trousers have grown looser around the waist recently suggests that I should eat more.
Topher has a plate with two slices of buttered bread on it, and beside the plate are two open jars. I know that one of them contains olives, but I'm not sure what's in the other. It's chunks of something brownish and lumpy looking in some kind of oil.
"What's that?" I ask curiously, pointing at the jar.
"Preserved artichoke hearts," he replies, spearing one with his fork and taking a bite out of it.
"Hearts? Yuck," I pull a disgusted face.
"Honestly monkey," he shakes his head and rolls his eyes. "They are vegetable hearts, not animal hearts. But I still doubt that you would like them."
"Oh, well they don't look very nice." How can vegetables have hearts?
"They are nice, but they are expensive here," he takes another bite. "If you do not go back to work how long will it be before we run out of money? Because I know that my wages from the bookshop are not enough to keep us both."
"I've got some money in the bank, enough to last about six months I think." Municipal Works are still paying me at the moment, but they won't for much longer if I don't go back.
"And then?" he looks at me, raising his eyebrows questioningly.
"I don't know." At the moment I can't see past next week, let alone that far into the future.
"There is a man who comes into the shop sometimes, he is pretty old and I think he is married. He has offered me quite a lot of money to spend the night with him..."
"No! You can't do that," I protest.
"It is an easy way of making money, and it is not like I have not done it before."
"For the god's sake, no. I'll get another job, or go back to my old one, or something."
"Something does not pay the bills," he frowns at me. "I have been broke and homeless once already in my life, it is not a situation I want to be in again."
"You won't be," I attempt to reassure him, although I don't even sound convincing to myself. Before he can say anything else someone knocks at the door.
"Gods, I hope that's not Sampson again," I mutter. "Can you get it? And whoever it is tell them I'm not here."
"They will not believe me, everyone knows you have not been out in days."
"Then tell them I'm sleeping."
"That they might believe."
He goes off to answer the door and I pick up his jar of vegetable hearts and look at it, the contents resemble something you'd find at the bottom of a swamp. I can hear voices coming from the other room and I strain to listen. I don't think it's Sampson, his voice is always loud, booming and unmistakable, but it is a man so it can't be Vio, Caddy, or Effie, although Effie always comes up via the internal door so it was never likely to be her. Maybe it's Mr Lustrum again.
Topher comes back into the room looking slightly bemused. "Who is it, and did you get rid of them?" I ask.
"I think it is someone you would like to see, so I did not get rid of him," he replies.
"Who is it, is it Ry?"
"Go and see."
I frown at Topher, but I do as he says, and when I open the kitchen door to look into the room beyond I can't quite believe who I'm seeing. I feel a rare smile forming on my face, and even though I know he'll hate me doing it I hurry to the other side of the room and hug him tightly. He mutters something in the echoback language as he briefly hugs me back, then steps away.
"You're looking pale and skinny," he observes after looking me up and down.
"What the hell are you doing here?" I question, unable to keep the delight out of my voice.
"Is that any way to greet a guest in your home?" Tallis frowns.
"No...of course not, come and sit down." I show him to the couch where Topher is already sitting in the armchair watching us.
"Not a bad little place you've got here," Tallis says, looking around the room as he makes himself comfortable. "A bit cluttered though, I assume that is down to you," he addresses the last part to Topher.
"Some of it," Topher shrugs.
"All of it," I correct.
"No, the vase is yours, and the picture of you and Jack is as well, which by the way we should change to a picture of all of us."
He's right, but now isn't the time to discuss that. I look at Tallis, he's got his tail out in the way he normally does, but Parnell isn't one of the places he normally visits. "Did you walk through the city like that?" I ask, pointing to his tail.
"Yes, and I have to say that the people here acted like they'd never seen an echoback before," he grumbles. "One woman stared so much she fell off her bicycle." I can only imagine the sort of commotion he must have caused.
"You need to tuck your tail down your trouser leg and strap it to your thigh," I advise.
"No, either the people here need to get used to it, or you need to live in a less provincial place."
"That is what I keep telling him," Topher puts in. "We do not belong here, I get stared at all the time too because I am Surosian blue."
Now is also not the time to get into that discussion either. "Am I allowed to ask you what you're doing here yet?" I say with a smile.
"You should know, it's on account of that letter you wrote to me, the one asking about Rufus?"
"Rufus?" I frown, trying to work out what he means, then I do. "Oh, that letter." Back when we were trying to work out if it was possible that Topher might have been the intended victim of the shooting at the Empress I did think that maybe Rufus might have been behind it. I wrote to Tallis to ask if Rufus was still in Nightport.
"Yes, that letter," Tallis raises his blue-black eyebrows at me.
"It turns out it wasn't Rufus who shot Topher, it was a woman called Toni."
"Damn, Capitan Quint was really hoping that he might be here. A few months ago Rufus got into a drunken argument with the admiral which ended up with Blaise having him locked in the gaol to cool off. Rufus managed to escape, with a little help we think, he stole a ship and along with some of Tobias' old crew fled the island. As you can imagine we've been looking for him ever since. We've just been in Kipp and in light of your letter Quint decided to make a short detour down here to find out if Rufus might really be on the Twin Islands."
"I'm sorry, we only found out who was behind the shooting a couple of weeks ago."
"Oh well, it was worth a try," he sighs. "So why did this woman take a shot at Topher? Not that I can't think of a good many reasons for that, but which one in particular was it?" He says this with a sly grin, him and Topher have always enjoyed goading one another.
"She was actually trying to shoot the man sitting next to me and missed," Topher replies haughtily.
"Shame," Tallis mutters. I know he's only joking, but it's still too raw for me to find it funny and I wince.
"What's wrong with you?" Tallis asks, clearly noticing this.
"He is depressed," Topher answers for me. He must think that Tallis is asking a more general question about my mood. "He has not been to work, or even out of the flat, for days."
"Why?" Tallis sounds puzzled.
"It's a long story," I sigh.
"And I have nowhere else I need to be today, we are on shore leave for two nights, so you have plenty of time to tell me your long story."
"Go on," Topher prompts when I don't say anything.
I start at the beginning with Menna's death and finish up with Vin's death, and in between I try to remember as many of the details as I can. Tallis listens quietly to the whole thing, and even Topher more or less manages to keep his mouth shut.
"You see, he is depressed because he thinks that Vin's death was somehow his fault," Topher says to Tallis once I'm done. "But it was not."
Tallis looks at me thoughtfully for a few seconds before he speaks. "I wouldn't say that you had this man's blood on your hands, but a small part of the blame does lie with you."
"It does not!" Topher objects, almost looking panicked.
Tallis holds up his hand as if to halt Topher. "I don't think that his actions in the hotel room were in any way wrong, he couldn't have known what that woman would do. What I mean is he knowingly got involved with this Toni's husband, a woman who by his own admission was his friend. Exit helped to sow a few of the seeds that ultimately led to the man's death, but you know that, don't you?" Tallis gives me a hard, golden eyed stare.
"I do," I admit.
"However you can't change the past, only the future, and hiding yourself away and punishing yourself for your part in it won't make one shred of difference to anyone. What is done is done, the man will still be dead, we bury the dead and move on, that is the correct way of things. You made a mistake, you will not make the same mistake again. Your mistake had consequences, and you need to own those, but moping about it like a sulky child won't help. Having a sense of guilt is a good thing, but not to the point of self indulgence."
I think about Tallis' words, he's right. What happened happened, it's done. I did the wrong thing but so did almost everyone else involved too. I was only one part of it.
"Would you make me some tea?" Tallis says, looking at Topher.
"Why?" Topher throws back.
"Because that's what you do when you have a guest, and I have things I need to speak to Exit about that don't concern you."
"What "things" do not concern me?" Topher sounds affronted.
"I wish to speak to him about his time in the forest and the ceremony he went through."
"Oh, you mean monkey things," Topher replies.
"I'd like tea too," I quickly say before Tallis explodes at being called a monkey. "And while the water's boiling could you go to the shop and get some biscuits? I know we don't have any left."
"Huh," Topher scowls, getting to his feet. "I know where I am not wanted."
"Good," Tallis nods. "That's an improvement."
"Chocolate biscuits I assume?" Topher asks.
"Please." As Topher turns to head into the kitchen to put the kettle on he flashes me a quick grin and gives me a wink. Tallis watches him as he comes back out and once Topher has left for the shop he very seriously asks me all about my manhood ceremony. I tell him everything that I can remember, even though much of it is hazy.
"I am very glad you had the opportunity to do that," he nods, inspecting my tattoo. "It's important, I only wish I could have been there with you instead of this human man Barney."
"So do I," I agree.
Topher returns, and miraculously he does actually make us all a pot of tea, and he even puts the biscuits out on a plate and brings it all in on a tray. "Have you finished with your monkey business?" he asks as he sits back down.
"I will pretend I did not hear that," Tallis says.
"Do you want me to repeat it?" Topher suggests brightly.
"No," I put in. "And perhaps you could not use the "m" word again today?"
"Hmm," Topher looks like he's pretending to think.
"I have something to ask that concerns both you and Exit," Tallis says to Topher. "However if you call anyone a monkey again I will leave without asking it."
"What is it?" Topher immediately quizzes him.
"No more monkey?" Tallis bargains.
"No more monkey...for today," Topher agrees.
"What do you want to ask us?" I say before this goes round in circles.
Tallis looks from Topher to me, then back again. "Captain Quint asked me to ask the pair of you if you would like to have dinner him on the Firebrat tomorrow night."
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