by London Lampy
"And I'm charging you a dollar extra for the inconvenience," the grumpy female visk is back, or maybe still, behind the front desk.
"What inconvenience?" Jack frowns at her.
"The inconvenience of having to move an elderly lady guest into a different room last night. Said she couldn't sleep for all the noise coming from the room above, said it sounding like you were hammering on the walls and torturing cats up there."
I guess the bed did sound a bit like a cat in pain at times. Jack carefully places a single coin into the middle of her open ledger. "We were doing neither, we were fucking. Perhaps if you bought a new bed to replace the one in there that's clearly older than dirt then maybe your guest wouldn't have complained," he says in a very polite tone of voice, then picks up his pack and walks out of the door, leaving the visk to watch him opened mouthed.
"Why did you tell her that?" I ask him once were both outside.
"Because it's the truth," he grins. "I don't want her thinking we're a pair of cat torturers. Come on, let's find some breakfast."
Once we've eaten, more flat bread from a street cart, this time filled with peppers and scrambled eggs, we make our way out of town along a well used cart track. I washed my shorts in the hotel sink and they're still quite damp, which isn't at all pleasant.
"We should reach Shelly by this evening," Jack says, squinting into the distance. "Do you have any idea where you might find Sampson and...Vera is it?"
"Vio," I supply, can't imagine how she'd feel about being called Vera. "When we were kidnapped we were meant to be staying in a hotel in Shelly but we never got there so I don't know which one. I suppose if we try all the hotels we'll find them in the eventually, as long as they're in the city and haven't left for home without me." I wonder what they think happened to me? I don't think anyone saw Jack capture me and they could be thinking anything. I hope Vio isn't too worried.
It feels good walking alongside Jack and knowing that I'll be able to see him again when I get home. I look up at him, he notices me and without a word he stops walking to kiss me, before setting off again with a smile on his face.
Around noon we arrive at another town, this one even smaller and scruffier than the last, little more than a few hard packed dirt streets with a collection of shabby shops and stalls lining them. Jack decides that he's hungry again so we stop for lunch. Once again I get stared at, it can't be because I'm an echoback as there are a fair few here too so it must be the lack of clothes. I guess it's frowned on to be dressed for the forest in a town, no matter how small and dusty the town. As we sit down on the ground in a side street to eat wooden skewers of grilled chicken a woman stops and gives me a dirty look, so Jack glares at her until she scurries off with her head down.
"It's only going to get worse when we get to Shelly," I sigh. "I wonder if Vio thought to bring my clothes with her?"
"I'd offer to buy you something to wear but the hotel almost cleaned me out," Jack puts him arm around my shoulders. "If it helps I think you look good dressed like that."
Once we finished eating Jack goes off to pee while I stay sat with his pack, when returns he grins at me and tells me he thinks that he's found a solution to my clothing problem.
"What?" I question.
"Come with me."
He leads me around the back of a row of dilapidated looking houses, they all have small yards set behind one long wooden fence. In one of the yards I can see washing drying on a line. "There," he points. "Look, the trousers even have a tail hole, and you have a choice of shirts, white or blue."
"We can't steal someone's washing!"
"Then you'll have to go to Shelly in nothing but those short shorts."
I look up at the washing line, its contents would solve things. "What if I get caught?"
"Run like hell," he laughs.
Jack lifts me up so I can see all the way over the fence, and as I don't spot anyone I climb up onto his shoulders then drop onto the other side. The washing line is supported by a wooden prop which I have to take down before I can reach the clothes. Unfortunately it's heavier than I expect it to be, I loose control of it and it ends up falling onto the dirt with a loud thud. As I'm quickly grabbing the trousers off the line the back door of the house opens and a very old and very angry looking echoback woman brandishing a broom comes flying out at me.
"What the hell are you doing?" she shouts. "Get your dirty hands off my husbands trousers!"
Before she can hit me with the broom I snatch the blue shirt, sending the pegs pinging off in all directions then throw the clothes over the fence rapidly followed by myself.
As I land on the ground beside Jack I hear her yelling. "Thieves! I've been robbed!" at the top of her voice. I pick up the trousers while Jack stuffs the shirt into his pack and we run together until we've left the town and are at least a mile down the cart track.
"You think we're safe now?" I ask, peering back the way we've come.
"Yeah," Jack pants. "Can't see them coming this far over a pair of trousers and a shirt."
The clothes were made for someone both shorter and fatter than me, the bottom of the trousers stop just above my ankles and I can only keep them up by using a piece of string from Jack's bag as a belt. But they're still better than nothing, or tiny shorts, which are almost nothing.
The track becomes busier after that and we see several carts going in both directions, taking supplies to and from the border towns. A driver who has dropped off his load and is heading back to Shelly stops to offer us a lift in his now empty wagon. We sit on the rough wooden boards with our legs dangling over the track as we rattle along, I doubt he'd have stopped if I was still nearly naked. Jack pulls a tin out of a pocket on his pack and opens it with his knife then offers me some of the contents, and I'm surprised to see that it's full of peanuts.
"High energy food," he explains once he's chewed and swallowed a mouthful. "Part of army rations, good for eating when you're on a long march."
"Do you like being a solider?" I ask, turning down the offer of the nuts.
"Yes, very much," he nods. "Ending up in a job I really like was the one good thing to come out of all the crap that happened."
"Do they know about you liking men?" I can't see how well that would go down in the army.
"Yeah," he chuckles. "I'm not spending my life lying or pretending to be something I'm not. I think the whole fucking Twin Island army has heard about the "big queer Sargent" by now. 'Course I'm not the only one, just the least secretive."
"And nobody minds?"
"I don't let them mind, and most of them are fine. I get a few comments but I'm old enough to live with that, and we're soldiers, everyone gets the piss taken out of them for something. Where you come from, the way you look, the way you talk, who you prefer to fuck, it's all the same really. The odd times someone has taken it further I've threatened to punch them, that usually works, and if threatening doesn't work I do punch them, and that always works."
"I can imagine," I run a finger over his scarred knuckles.
"But I haven't had to do that often, and my lads are great. There's been one or two privates that have asked to be transferred away from me, don't know what they think I'm going to do to them, but most of them are great. A few months back a bunch of them got into a fight with another troop over something one of them said about me, they're very loyal. And I make it a rule to never do anything with anyone I work with because that would be a fucking disaster."
"Hmm," I think about Vin.
"Not that I don't get offers, you wouldn't believe the number of times some bloke has a skin full then comes and tells me how he's never been with another man but wants to try it. Then they get all offended when I turn them down, it's like, firstly just because you're male doesn't mean I want to fuck you, and secondly if you've never done it before then you're going to be crap, and I don't want crap sex."
"That's really funny," I giggle. "You know what you should do next time that happens? Drop your pants and tell them fine so long as you can stick that in their ass, that should scare them off."
Jack laughs so hard at this he nearly falls off the back of the cart, and the driver calls out to ask if we're alright.
By nightfall we're dropped off in the outskirts of Shelly, I don't recognise anything from the brief time I was here before until we reach the city centre and find the railway station.
"I don't know where to start," I sigh, looking around at the lamp lit busy street.
"Lets start with that hotel," Jack suggests, pointing at one beside the station.
I'm very glad we stole the clothes, no one gives me a second glance now, although a few people stare at Jack. It could be the uniform, but more likely because he's the sort of person you want to stare at, and I do notice that most of the people looking at him are women. At the first hotel I ask the girl behind the desk if a party from the Twin Islands including a tall woman with white blond hair happens to be staying there, she tells me in a bored tone of voice that that she's not allowed to give out that kind of information. Then Jack leans on the desk, smiles at her and asks if she could possibly make an exception for him and she suddenly blushes, plays with her hair and admits that no such party is staying in her hotel.
"You flirted with her to get that information," I say once we get outside.
"It worked didn't it?" he shrugs.
It seems to work on everyone in every hotel we try. With the women he smiles and flirts and they tell him what he wants to know, with the men he acts friendly and calls them mate and they tell him what he wants to know, except one pretty blond man who he flirts with, which also works but makes me glare at Jack until he tells me to stop being so stupid, but nowhere do we find any trace of Vio, Sampson or even Vin and eventually we find ourselves back at the station.
"What do we do now?" I say, squinting up at the clock on top of the station building. It's nearly eight o'clock and if we don't find them soon we're going to end up sleeping on the city streets tonight.
"I could use some food," Jack replies. "Then we start looking again, we haven't tried every hotel yet."
We stop at a small bar with tables set out in the street, once we're sitting Jack pulls a few coins out of his pocket, places them on the table and counts them. "Enough for a couple of beers and some food, so long as we don't order the most expensive thing on the menu."
"Is that it?" I sigh looking at the money. "I shouldn't have made you pay for that hotel."
"It was worth it," he grins. "And it wasn't that expensive, I just didn't have much on me to start with."
A waiter comes out and hands us a couple of menus, we order beers and while he's fetching them I stare out across the street. The place is bustling, I remember last time I was here in the middle of the afternoon Shelly had felt almost deserted and Vin explaining to me that the locals all retire to their houses and sleep for the hottest part of the day, not coming out again until the sun starts to set.
The crowd on the street is a mixture of human, echoback and visk and I watch them all passing by, looking for a familiar face, until I spot someone who looks a lot like Vio in the distance. I try to get a good look at the person but they're too far away and there are too many others in the way, but I do very briefly see a flash of red hair next to the possible Vio, could that be Vin? Standing up to get a better view Jack asks me what I'm doing, but I ignore him, I've just got a brief but clear flash of profile and I'm almost certain it's Vio. I climb up onto my chair and I can now see her and Vin clearly walking in the direction of the station.
"Vio! Vin!" I shout out, waving to them, a lot of people stare at me, but not them so I try again. "VIO! VIN!" I yell as loudly as I can and this time they do turn and see me. Vio's mouth actually drops open in surprise, while Vin stares at me shaking his head in what looks like disbelief. Surely it's not that strange to see me here, it is where we agreed to meet up after all.
When they get close I notice that Vio is crying, which is very odd, and she doesn't even stop to say hello or ask me how or when I got here, she simply picks me up off the chair and hugs me tightly enough to break bones.
"You ain't dead!" she says, her voice and her accent thickening with emotion. When she finally puts me down I look at Vin for some kind of explanation, but he doesn't say anything either, just hugs me too, not quite as hard or for quite as long as Vio, but coming from him it's all the more surprising.
"We were told you'd been killed," he says once he's let me go, his green eyes suspiciously damp looking.
"Killed? Who told you that?"
"Ev," Vio replies. Ev's not dead? "He said that you and him were trying to escape from the soldiers, he was shot in the leg but managed to make it to the forest and flee, but he said he saw you get shot in the back several time, said they killed you on the spot."
"Bollocks!" Jack says loudly. "We didn't shoot anyone, only a few warning shots were fired that's all, and we don't shoot people in the back." Vio and Vin look behind me, noticing him for the first time.
"Who the hell are you?" Vin asks.
"Sargent Jack Bryce," Vin looks briefly surprised at the name. "I was there, and that's not what happened."
"Clearly, Exit isn't dead," Vin frowns.
"Thank the gods for that," Vio puts her arm around my shoulders sniffling. "I remember you," she peers at Jack. "You were there."
"He was," I agree, slightly pointlessly. "He brought me back here."
While Vio shakes hands with Jack, thanking him for helping me, Vin pulls up a couple of chairs from one of the other tables. The waiter then appears with our drinks and they order two more beers and as we drink we try to piece together what happened.
"I think that Ev must have see you get caught by the soldiers, who I can only imagine he still thought we hired guards, and decided that if he told everyone you were dead then no one would try to rescue you and there'd be no possibility of you telling everyone what he'd done," Vin says, sipping on his beer.
"Tried to do," I correct him. "He didn't actually do anything, I can't believe he got out of the house and escaped though, I shot him in the knee."
"Sheer fucking determination," Vio replies. "I saw his leg, it was a mess. Apparently he came back through the trees, his leg might have been fucked but the other one and his arms and tail still worked."
That makes sense, he would have been in a lot of pain, but up in the trees if you've got a tail you can manage without a leg.
It turns out that they are staying in a hotel further out of the city centre than we searched, and they'd come down here to book train tickets back to Kipp. Once we've finished our drinks Vin suggests that we go back to the hotel.
"Sampson has practically been in mourning ever since he was told you'd been killed, he blames himself, and Tippit isn't doing much better. Let's go and put them out of their misery." Vin stands up, puts his hand into his pocket, pulls out a couple of notes then puts them on the table in front of Jack. "That's for bringing him back safely, you shouldn't have any trouble finding a bed for tonight, and I'll square things with Captain Samuels, I know him of old," Jack and me look at one another.
"Thanks," Jack says, pushing the notes back across the table to Vin. "But I don't want any money, and I'm coming with you." He stands too, he's a lot taller than Vin.
"That's not necessary," Vin frowns up at him. "This isn't an army matter any more."
"No, he's with me," I say, standing beside Jack and slipping my hand into his. Jack grins broadly, while Vin's frown deepens.
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