by London Lampy
"New chairs," I observe as I sit down.
"Yeah, I never liked those oversized ones, they even made me feel small," Vio replies.
The office has changed a lot, however no one has got around to painting out Vin's name on the door and replacing it with Vio's yet so instead she's hand written "Vio's Office" on a sheet of paper and stuck it up on the door with parcel tape, covering Vin's name. On the inside most of the old furniture is gone and has been replaced by smaller, simpler stuff. The huge, dark polished wooden desk is no longer in evidence and Vio has had her desk from our shared office brought in instead. The almost sofa sized leather chair that Vin used, the one we had sex in that night we spent in his office, is nowhere to be seen and the big, expensive looking mirror that used to hang on the far wall is now a cork notice board dotted with pinned up pieces of paper. There's also a smell of old cheroot smoke in the air that was never here before.
I know that she's only trying to make the office her own, but it kind of feels like the last traces of Vin are being wiped away. I glance over at the window, that hasn't changed. I have a sudden flash of memory back to last winter, me and Vin, in here in the dark together against the window, him inside me, us looking out over the city feeling like we owned it. I shake my head and the memory breaks apart like mist.
Vio and I make small talk for a while, but we both know why I'm here and when she lights up a cheroot I know it's the signal for us to get to it. "So," she says, breathing out blue smoke. "Are you coming back or what?"
Last night after Tallis left Topher and me talked about the future. Up to this point Topher has had to fit himself in around my life, and has been reasonably happy to do so, but I think it's time he got to do something that he both wants and needs to do. "Eventually," I say. "But I'd like to take a couple of months off first so I can go with Topher to Surosa, he wants to find what's left of his family."
Vio looks at me, drawing her pale eyebrows together in thought. "You know I can't really authorise that, I'd need to pass it up to Zale and Sampson."
"But you don't mind the idea?"
"No," she shakes her head. "You need a break, and with my promotion you now don't have a partner. We're either going to have to reorganise the department or recruit someone new, either way will take time. I can't promise Zale and Sampson will say yes though, but Sampson likes you so that's a start." Zale doesn't though. "If they don't say yes, what will you do?"
"I thought you'd say that," she nods, taking a drag from her smoke.
"I'm not holding you to ransom or anything, but Topher needs to do this and I can't let him go alone."
"Yeah, I get it, some things are just more fucking important than work." I thought she'd understand, since the night Vin died her and Topher have been getting on a lot better. I think Vio finally saw the other side of him and realised that there's a lot more to him than the brat he sometimes comes across as. "What about Jack?" she asks.
"I know he won't be able to come as well, but I thought we could go and stay with him for a bit before we went."
"And Topher's job?"
"Mr Lustrum is happy to give him the time off, they've already spoken about it. In fact it was kind of Mr Lustrum's idea in the first place. He thinks Topher needs..." What was the word he used? "Closure," I say, hoping that's right.
"Closure?" she frowns, looking puzzled.
"Yeah, it kind of means he needs to find an end to things so he can be happy."
"I think I see what you're getting at," she says, tapping ash into her ashtray. "So do you want me to ask Zale and Sampson about this proposed trip today?"
"Please, if you don't mind."
"I don't, it's just fucking good to see you back to your old self, what happened?"
"I had a visit from an old friend."
As I come out of Vin's...Vio's office, up ahead I see Sonja coming out of our office. She either doesn't notice me or chooses to ignore me as she turns on her heel and walks in the opposite direction, her shoes making a clacking sound on the lino as she goes. The light from one of the windows catches her long, black, glossy hair and reflects off it, briefly making it look like the wing of a blackbird...or a crow. It occurs to me that there is something quite crow like about Sonja, and if I was looking for a nickname for her, one that was a kind of animal, that's what I'd pick.
I walk quickly but quietly until I'm no more than a couple of yards behind her. "Crow," I call out, as if I'm calling her name to get her attention. Her reaction tells me everything I need to know. She turns in recognition at the name, opens her mouth as if to say something, then a look of total shock passes over her face as she realises that she's given herself away. She turns back, mutters something to herself and hurries off, almost running to the far end of the corridor then out of sight around the corner.
Vio dislikes Sonja even more than I do. I wonder if when I tell her that the woman is a Clearwater mole whether Vio will chose to keep Sonja on and use her in the way Vin did, or utilise the information to legitimately get rid of her from the department for good?
"Are you nervous?" I ask Topher as our taxi makes its way through the city.
"What have I got to be nervous about?" he shrugs.
"Nothing I guess." I have though, a lot. While Tallis told me that Quint's forgiven me for betraying him and the rest of the crew I've never been able to forget that the last thing he said to me before my "rescue" from the Firebrat was to call me a trator. He was right, I had betrayed his trust in the very worst way possible, and I've regretted the way things ended ever since.
If I'm honest I'm both terrified and thrilled to be seeing him again after all this time, whereas for Topher I suppose it's more like dinner with an old friend, like me and Ry.
The female visk Zizi is still first mate, and I'm really looking forward to seeing her again as well, if she wants to see me that is. She's not going to be having dinner with us but Tallis told me he'd make sure she came and said hello during our visit.
Looking out of the window I can see that we're pretty close to the docks now and a sudden rush of nerves makes my skin prickle with sweat and my stomach flip. I swallow hard, trying to keep my breathing even and and stay as calm as possible.
"You are not going to throw up are you?" Topher asks, moving to the opposite end of the seat. "You look kind of pale and sweaty."
"No, I'm not going to throw up," I assure him, although I'm not entirely sure that I'm not.
"Good. I hope Raffity is not going to be eating with us," he mutters.
"Who?" I question, distracted from my worry by this.
"Raffity, you know," he rolls his eyes. "Stupid fucking name for a stupid fucking boy."
"Oh, him." I'd almost forgotten that Quint had a new pet, who is Topher's sworn enemy. "If Quint's got any sense he won't let the boy anywhere near you, not if he wants a peaceful meal." I am curious to meet Raffity though, but not if it means him and Topher sniping at each other all night.
The taxi isn't allowed all the way down to the dockside so the driver stops on the road and we get out and pay. The night air is cold and Topher, who's wearing my overcoat because he hasn't got one of his own, immediately hugs himself and shivers as a chill breeze blows off the river. I feel a shiver run through me too, but it has nothing to do with the temperature.
Even in the evening the docks are busy and we have to dodge dockers loading and unloading cargo by the light of dozens of electric bulbs that are strung along the side of the docks as we make our way to where the Firebrat is berthed. The mixture of smells at the docks is as strong as ever, spices brought from far away, fish from the fishing vessels and the heavy steam and smoke scent from the huge chimney stacks on the steamers all come together. Most of the ships here are steamers, many of them squat, grey things used only for cargo, although scattered amongst them are the occasional larger and more elegant passenger liners. There are only a handful of sailing ships, and every single one is a small clipper except for one, a magnificent, familiar, full-rigged wooden beauty with a menacing red and black daemon for a figurehead.
I stop and stare up at the Firebrat, silhouetted against the almost dark sky it looks stunning, even if it meant nothing to me the sight of it would still take my breath away. "There she is," I say unnecessarily. I'm not the only person admiring the ship, a handful of dockers are smoking and idling on a pile of crates and I hear the oldest one, a man who must be close to sixty, telling the others that is what a real ship looks like.
"Are we going aboard, or are you just going to stand there and stare at it? I am getting colder by the minute," Topher grumbles.
The gang plank is being guarded by a crew member who I don't recognise, but he knows Topher and lets us up without question. I allow Topher go first and as soon as we set foot on the deck I see a familiar figure hurrying toward us. "Hiya Topher!" Zizi greets, with what I think is a smile on her lizard face. "Long time no see." Following behind Zizi is a dark haired young woman who looks kind of familiar, but I can't quite place her.
"Hello Zizi, hello Lottie," Topher replies, and as soon as I hear her name I know who she is. Lottie was one of Tobias' pets, the one who chose to stay on after his death. I remember now, Tallis told me in a letter that Zizi took her on as a trainee. It looks as if life as a sailor is treating her well, the last time I saw her she was pale, thin, bruised and scared of her own shadow. Now her skin is tanned, she's sleekly muscled and is able to look me in the eye.
"Hello," I say to them, quieter than Topher, not knowing how Zizi feels about me.
"Hello Exit," Zizi says seriously. Her head is tilted to one side and her black eyes stare into mine.
"Zizi, I'm sorry," I blurt out.
"I know. If you weren't you wouldn't be welcome back here," she then puts out her four fingered hand and I take it and shake it, feeling her cool, smooth, scaled skin against mine. "This puts it all behind us," she nods as she lets go of my hand.
"Thanks," I smile in relief. Zizi has always been scrupulously even handed and fair, if she says that's an end to it then it is.
"The captain asked me to show the pair of you through to his private quarters when you arrived," Zizi says, setting off across the deck, motioning for us to follow.
Of course we both know the way, but the Firebrat is not ours to come and go on as we please any more, not even Topher, who left under much better circumstances than me. By the time we reach the door to Quint's private quarters my heart is leaping in my chest and an entire flock of butterflies have set up home in my gut. We stop, Zizi knocks, and from the other side of the door I hear a voice I didn't think I'd ever hear again calling for us to enter.
Once again I let Topher go first, and I follow him into the room hiding behind him a little. Quint's private quarters have been set up for dinner, the table that normally holds navigation charts has been laid with a crisp, white cloth, napkins, silver knives and forks and a porcelain plates that are a long way from the battered tin plates of the ship's galley. Not that all of this is of much interest to me, because standing by the table is Captain Quint. I had almost forgotten how handsome he is, his long dark hair is tied back with a black ribbon the way it always used to be and he's wearing his captain's uniform of black shirt and trousers. His chocolate brown eyes focus on Topher first, who bounces over to him and hugs him warmly, finishing up with an affectionate kiss on the cheek.
Once the two of them have parted and Topher has moved away l know it's my turn.
"Hello Exit," Quint says softly. He looks me up and down, and to my intense relief he's smiling.
"Hello," I reply. My nerves suddenly vanish, and their place is taken by all the feelings I have for him, the ones that for a very long time I've kept locked away in the deepest part of me.
Without stopping to think I hug him just as Topher did, pressing my face against his shoulder I breath in the scent of him. He smells like limes and the warm blue sea off Nightport and I push my body as close to his as I can, wanting to be wrapped on him. I feel him kiss my cheek and I turn my head so he can kiss me on the mouth, which he does. I return his kiss, opening my mouth to his and letting his tongue slip inside. We kiss deeply for a few seconds until I feel a hand grabbing the back of my sweater and tugging me away.
"Jack!" a scandalised sounding voice says as I'm pulled out from Quint's embrace. I look at Topher and he frowns at me, shaking his head in disapproval as he lets me go.
"Oh...yeah," I say, trying to catch my breath.
"Why don't you both sit down?" Quint says smoothly, gesturing to the table, but I can't help noticing a bulge in his trousers.
As we settle into our chairs Topher frowns at me again, in return I give him a small shrug. If he hadn't been here I wonder how far that would have gone?
I watch as Quint pours us both glasses of deep red wine, the wine catches the light of the oil lamps that illuminate the room and it glistens like something rich and precious. "It's wonderful to see both of you back here," he says once we all have full glasses. "I've missed you, both of you." As he says this he locks his eyes onto mine.
"I've missed being here," I confess, and I have. By the time I left the Firebrat it felt more like my home, like the place I belonged, than anywhere else I'd ever been.
"Where is thingy?" Topher asks, looking around the small room as if another person could be hiding in it somewhere.
"Raffity is below decks," Quint replies. "He won't be joining us." I wonder if Quint has locked him into his cabin?
"Good," Topher says firmly, taking a sip of his wine.
"I'm afraid that Topher and Raffity didn't get on as well as the two of you did," Quint says to me with a small smile.
"We didn't get along at first," I remind him.
"True," he agrees. "But Topher never actually hated you, and you were easy going enough to put up with most of his brattishness. The problem with Topher and Raffity is that they're much too similar to every truly get along."
"He is nothing like me!" Topher loudly retorts.
"He's a lot like you were when I first met you," Quint replies. "I will admit that you've matured...a little."
"He has," I agree, "he's even got a job."
"Good gods!" Quint looks amused. "Doing what?"
As Topher explains about working in Mr Lustrum's bookshop Zizi enters with Lottie close behind her. Both of them are carrying trays loaded with steaming serving dishes and they place them onto the table, slightly awkward reaching around us to manage this in the small space. The captain dismisses them once they're done and they go again, by which time my stomach is growling and my mouth is watering. The smell from the food is amazing, full of scents that you don't get in Parnell cooking.
"Real food!" Topher exclaims happily as Quint lifts the lid on one of the dishes.
"Tallis told me you'd given up eating meat," the captain says to me. "So I had Clyde prepare some dishes without it in."
"Thanks." I would have made an exception for tonight if he hadn't, it smells much too delicious not to eat.
Over dinner Capitan Quint fills us in on all the latest news from Nightport. He elaborates on what happened with Rufus, apparently the man turned up on the admiral's doorstep in a drunken state and challenged his leadership of the pirates. Admiral Blaise knocked Rufus to the floor with his walking stick, which if I remember correctly was a solid piece of wood with a large, knobbly, club-like end, not something I'd like to be hit with. Then the admiral had Rufus dragged to the gaol and locked up, and from there Rufus later made his escape. They suspect that he was aided by some of Tobias' old crew who were still loyal to their late captain. Rufus then disappeared with a dozen of these men and a small ship, and they've been searching for him and trying to recover the stolen ship ever since.
There's other, sadder news too. The old pirate Artie from Quint's crew has died, according to Quint one moment he was mending a torn sail and the next minute he was slumped dead on the deck. I always liked Artie, he was funny and friendly and he used to keep us entertained by playing the fiddle while his brother Badger sang.
I'm amused to learn that the admiral's much younger wife Teena is pregnant. "The baby's due any day now," Quint says, rolling his eyes and laughing at this late life addition to his father's brood. "Of course my father's delighted and is telling anyone who'll listen that it proves even though the plumbing may be old it's far from rusty."
We, well mostly Topher with the occasional contribution and correction from me, fill Quint in on what's been going on in our lives for the past few months. Topher finishes up by telling him all about Jack and us.
"Ah," says Quint when Topher's done. "Then I suppose out of respect to your solider friend I'd better not ask the pair of you if you would like to spend the night on the ship with me."
"Were you going to?" I ask him.
"Yes," he replies with a rueful smile.
I look at Topher, and am about to suggest that maybe we should, for old times sake, but then I stop. I recall what Tallis said about not making the same mistake again, and what Vin said to me about being careful or I'd turn into him. Just because I want to, just because the offer is there, doesn't mean I should. Cheating on Jack with Quint would hurt Jack deeply, and that's exactly the kind of hurt that Vin caused Toni. I love Jack too much to do that to him.
"Sorry," Topher says, speaking for both of us. "But that is not on offer any more."
"Fair enough," Quint nods. "However I do have another offer, this one for Exit alone."
"What?" I look at him curiously.
"I've spoken with both Zizi and Tallis at length about this, and we all agree that we'd like you to come back and rejoin the crew. You were shaping up to be an excellent sailor before you left us, and you'd be an asset to any crew."
As I take in his words I realise that I want this, very much more than I want to spend the night with Quint, almost more than I've ever wanted anything, but that I'm going to have to turn this offer down as well. "I can't," I say miserably. "Jack moved to the Twin Islands to be near me...and I've almost wrecked that once already."
"And what would I do?" Topher throws in.
"Well, if he'd said yes I'm sure we could have found some kind of gainful employment on Nightport to keep you out of trouble while he was at sea," Quint says, sounding amused. "Exit, I understand why you feel like you can't right now, but sometimes circumstances change, and as far as I'm concerned the offer will stay open for as long as I'm captain of this ship."
"Thank you," I reply, swallowing back a lump in my throat, his offer meaning more to me than I'm capable of putting into words.
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