by London Lampy
As usual I'm running late for work, trying to get dressed while simultaneously eating a breakfast of chocolate biscuits, bananas and milk when two letters fall through my letterbox and plop onto the carpet below. I pick them up and look at the envelopes, one is smaller and lighter then the other, it has my name and address written haphazardly in pencil across the front and a Twin Islands stamp stuck at an angle in the corner, it can only be from Jack. The other is thicker, has my details written neatly in pen and a Kipp stamp; I don't know who it's from, but I know who I'd like it to be from. I decide to open the one from Jack here and save the mystery one for when I get to work.
As soon as I got to my new base I asked my new Captain when I could have time off he said I could have four days in six weeks so I will see you again in six weeks for four days. I missed you as soon as the train left Parnell it was so good staying with you for the week and I cant wait to see you again. My new post is mostly training new recruts but if we are needed anywhere else we will be sent there and if that happens I will write to tell you where I am. I still cant believe we found each other again and it makes me think that some things are meant to be and you and me are one of those things I saw Jane in the village but Dana was on the East Island and Jane was amazed two that we met again and she says hello. I have put the picture of us beside my bed in my new flat (I get a hole flat to myself!!) and I look at it alot and think about stuff (I dont want to say what stuff because sometimes they check our letters but I think you can guess what I mean) but I would rater be doing stuff with you than thinking about it. I need to go now because I need to go and shout at some recruts.
I love you
p.s Can you say sorry to Effie for me again please?Please tell her that I really did think it was you come home from work early and not her come in to look for her cat.
Pps I love you.
Ppps my new adress is on the back of the envelope and Ill write again soon
I fold the letter up and put it back in the envelope, then place it on the mantelpiece beside my copy of the picture of the two of us together.
The incident with Effie was a little unfortunate. I don't think she'd ever seen a naked man before and after seeing Jack without his clothes on I can't help thinking that the next one she sees might be a bit of a disappointment. Not that she minded too much, she developed a huge crush on him and kept coming up to the flat for any reason she could think of, Effie was almost more upset than me when Jack left.
I sigh to myself. Six weeks is a long time and I kind of wish that Captain Samuels hadn't let him go and he had left the army, then he could have come here to live with me. He already warned me that he might get sent away again, even back to the Northern Continent and we talked about it. If it happens and he's away for months on end we agreed that neither of us expected the other one to stay celibate. Although he did make me promise not to sleep with Vin again, partly because he doesn't like him, and partly because he thinks that having sex with a married man is wrong, but the whole thing is not easy, he's been gone a week now and six more without either Jack or sex feels like forever.
I wait until my mid morning tea break at work to open the second letter, taking my tea and biscuits and going to sit on the windowsill by the stairway that nobody ever uses because they all use the lift, which makes it a good place to hide in.
My heart is thumping as I slit open the envelope. It contains two neatly written pages of thick creamy paper and I flip them over straight away to find the name "Tallis" written in a pen flourish at the bottom. I try not to get too excited before I've actually read what he has to say, but that he's even bothered to write to me in the first place makes me feel hopeful.
My Dear Exit,
I have been deeply concerned about you for these last few months, I had no idea if you were alive or dead so to discover that you had visited Senis and had left your contact details with her came as a great relief.
You will not remember the last time I saw you, you had lost all conciseness and were bleeding heavily from the gunshot wound to your leg, and I feared that such a loss of blood would be too much for your body. I aided Captain Quint and a red headed man in getting you aboard the enemy freighter as despite the circumstances it seemed like that would give you the greatest chance to survive your injury.
It has been many years since I felt grief but I have been grieving for you ever since you left, both over your possible death and over the deception from someone I had come to care for very much. For a long time it felt to me that even if you were still living the Exit I had know had died, so much of what I thought I knew about you turned out to be a lie and I was not the only person to feel this way. For many weeks after Captain Quint banned all mention of your name, even going so far as to threaten the cat to any man who spoke of you to him. In the end it took the most unlikely of persons, the Surosian brat, to talk sense into us. He risked punishment by forcing us to listen to him tell us how stupid we were being, and he made us understand that however things had ended you had truly been one of us whilst you were here.
I am now able to admit how much I miss you It was a pleasure to teach you to sail, and to have another of our kind on board, even if you did spend slightly too much time daydreaming, and never quite managed the perfect splice.
Senis informed me that you had spent some time in the forest and undertook the ceremony to bring you into manhood whilst you were there. This was very welcome news, too many of the old ways are being forgotten or ignored now and the watered down form that passes for the ceremony in the city is hardly worth its participants time or effort. I am sorry that I could not be there with you though, and I hope that you had a suitable elder male to see you through the days of dreaming.
Senis also showed me a copy of the Kipp Al Reah newspaper with your picture in it. I cannot say that I fully understand how or why you were part of the slavery summit, and I am afraid that Senis was unable to shed much light on the matter, she was more interested in telling me about your solider friend, who she deemed to be "luscious" , than she was in explaining anything else to me. Perhaps you could write back to me with a full explanation, because whatever it is you have been part of something that will help change the lives of future generations of echobacks.
I have not informed Captain Quint of my having your address, but I do think that you owe him the courtesy of writing to him and both explaining and apologising for your deceptions, I will pass any letter you wish to write onto him. I also believe that Zizi would be very happy to hear from you, so maybe you could drop her a few lines as well? She has her own trainee now, if you recall Lottie, one of the late, unmissed Tobias' pets stayed on the island, and Zizi has taken her on and is teaching her how to sail. Initially this caused some scandal amongst the men, as you know women are not traditionally allowed to sail on the ships, but in the same way that female pets are re-classed as "living cargo" Captain Quint re-classed her as a boy when she is on board, and the fuss soon died down.
I have so many things I would like to say to you, but they will have to wait for another day as time marches on and I need to post my letter before we set sail once again. I very much hope that this will only be the start of our correspondence, and I also very much hope that at some time in the future we will meet again.
Your friend always,
A week after I received the letters I'm sitting at my desk trying to make sense of a pile of paperwork while trying to ignore Sonja and Kezlo's bickering over who put the most work into a some presentation that they are doing when Vio comes in and drops a newspaper on top of my files.
"Have you seen that?" she asks, pointing to an article.
"Um, no. Is it about Clearwater?" I have been trying to read the newspaper more often, but I haven't bought one today.
"Just read it."
LOGGING CAMPS ATTACKED
A spate of attacks on logging camps along the borders of the Reah basin forest have been reported over the past few weeks. Tools, carts and equipment have been either destroyed or stolen and guards have been rendered unconscious by powerful drugs. While no organisation has stepped forward to take responsibility, it is widely believed to be the work of Father Barnaby and his group of outlaw ex slave echobacks. It is thought that since the virtual ending of slavery following the economic sanctions imposed on any company using slaves by the Twin Islands and other countries that they have switched their focus away from slave owners and toward the logging companies who are responsible for cutting down hundreds of square acres of forest every year. A spokesman for one of the largest logging companies said that they would be doing "everything in their power" to stop the attacks, but as the notorious ex priest has evaded the authorities for many years they may have a difficult task ahead of them.
"I didn't think he simply retire," she says once I've finished reading.
"Good for him," I nod. "Someone needs to let them know they can't keep hacking the forest down." I can picture Barney going into battle against the loggers, swinging his hammer and smashing their carts, but I hope that the newspaper is right and he doesn't get caught. If he ever is I have no doubt that he'll be executed on the spot.
"You want to come out with Caddy and me again tonight?" she asks, lighting up a cheroot.
"No, not tonight," I reply.
Vio's been feeling sorry for me ever since Jack left, she knows just how lonely I've been and just how much I'm missing him so she keeps inviting me out with her and Caddy. However I get the feeling that they'd like to spend some time without me, especially as Tippit is working tonight and he often comes out with us too.
Apparently Dawkins, Ry's elderly butler was very unsure of Tippit at first but now seems to have accepted his presence in the household and has even been teaching him how to do butlering. Tippit has settled very happily into Vio's house, and the city in general, although he has kind of started disguising himself once more. Almost as soon as we got here he dyed his hair black, he has also taken to slicking it down with hair cream again and when he's outdoors he wears dark glasses as well. Not the ones he had on when he was pretending to be Kremmen, his new ones are a bit lighter and they don't have side flaps, but they do hide his eyes and them along with his hair and his filed down teeth mean that half the time he's passing himself off as a very short human, which sort of annoys me. I know it's no fun being stared at on the street all the time, but it's the starers problem not mine and I've never, ever wanted to pretend to be a human. Vio says it's his business not mine though, and that after all he's been through he just wants a quiet life.
As I'm heading out of the Municipal Works building on my way home at the end of the day Vin catches up with me. "Would you like to go out to dinner tonight?" he asks, stopping by the door.
"No," I shake my head. "I promised Jack I'd stay away from you." And it's a promise that I'm going to keep.
"I'm inviting you out for dinner, nothing else." He gives me a crooked smile, and despite everything a part of me still wants him.
"The answer is still no."
"Come on, just dinner, solider boy has nothing to worry about." His green eyes meet mine, but I'm not going to change my mind.
"No," I say again. "It's a bad idea."
"You don't trust me?" He steps a little closer.
"Not one bit," I reply. And after a few drinks I don't trust myself either.
"I can't persuade you to change your mind?"
"No," I move away from him.
"Shame, I was hoping you'd tell me all about you and that echoback boy in the forest, you must have looked incredible together. Maybe another time." And with that he turns and disappears out of the building, leaving me feeling even more alone.
While we were away spring turned into summer so it's still daylight when I get back home. I've just set foot on the iron staircase that runs up the side of the shop to my flat when Effie comes running out of the shop waving at me to wait, Jinks cradled in one arm.
"Evening Eff, how are you?" I ask.
"I'm fine but Daddy is in a terrible mood, moths have got into our stock and so far we've found that they've eaten holes through a stack of tablecloths."
"That doesn't sound good."
"No, it's not, but that's not what I wanted to tell you. Someone came round here about an hour ago looking for you."
I wait for her to give me more details, but she doesn't so I ask her who it was. "I don't know, but I said that you must still be at work and would be home later." She blinks at me.
"This person, they didn't leave a name, or a message?" I quiz her.
"No, he just said he'd come back later," she shrugs.
"He? So it was a man then?" Could be a lot of people.
"Hmm." She tilts her head onto one side.
"You don't sound sure, was it a man or a woman?"
"It wasn't a woman." She pets Jinks head. "More like a boy, or a young man, younger than you."
Still could be a lot of people. "Alright, what did he look like, apart from young?"
"Um," she frowns. "Dark."
"What do you mean, dark hair, dark eyes, dark skin?"
"Yes, all of those. He had a big suitcase too, and he swore when I told him you weren't here, not at me, just said some curse words, but he was kind of hard to understand because he had a funny accent."
No...it can't possibly be. "Was he alone?" I frown.
"Did he have a lot of hair, kind of thick and down to here?" I hold my hand just below my eyebrows.
"Yes, he did," she grins.
"And was he quite skinny and a little taller than me?"
"Yes! That's him, do you know him?"
"I think I do," I say in disbelief. "And he definitely said he'd come back?"
"Oh yes, definitely." Jinks wriggles out of her grip and jumps to the ground, sniffing around my feet. "I'd better go back inside and help Daddy, we're having to check through everything for more moth holes, but I wanted to tell you about that."
"Thank you," I say, sitting down on a step near the bottom of the staircase to wait as Effie goes back into the shop.
It has to be him, who else fits that description, but what is he doing here? Jinks comes and sits on the step below mine and I find myself stroking his head, feeling nervous, but I'm not really sure why. After about twenty minutes I spot a familiar figure, a figure that I thought I'd never see again, coming down the street toward the shop struggling with a very large suitcase. I stand up and jump down onto the path with Jinks following, rubbing round my ankles. My heart is thumping loudly as he approaches, we watch one another as he walks the last few steps then he stops and drops his suitcase with a thud and frowns at me.
"You are home now," Topher states.
"Yes." He hasn't changed at all.
Topher looks down at Jinks, who's still by my feet. "You own a cat?"
"Um...no, he belongs to the shop." I indicate the Costas' haberdashery.
"Good, cats do not like me. Are you just going to stand there, or are you going to invite me inside? I have come a fucking long way to get here."
I lead him up the stairs, with him dragging the suitcase noisily behind clanging up each step, then I unlock the door and let us into my flat.
Once I've shut the door I turn to him. "What the...what are you doing here?" I ask, but instead of a reply he drops his case, flings his arms around me and hugs me tightly. I hug him back and we stay like that for quite some time.
"I have missed you so fucking much," Topher says, almost too quietly to be heard, and all I can do is agree.
I've tried to lock away my feelings for him these last few months, thinking that I'd never see him again, but now he's here it feels like a wall has come down inside me. I pull back to look at him, and I really only mean to give him a friendly kiss hello, but it turns into something else, a short but passionate something else. Stepping away from him I'm still not quite able to comprehend that he's in Parnell.
"You have to tell me, what are you doing here? Did Quint put you off the ship? And how the hell did you find me?"
"No, he did not put me off the ship," he retorts, throwing himself down on my couch. "I left of my own accord, and Tallis gave me your address, he said he got it off that noisy monkey girl we met that time in Kipp, but you weren't here when I arrived."
"I was at work," I say, sitting down beside him. "If you'd written to say you were coming I'd have been here though."
"Would you?" he grins.
"Yes," I slip my hand into his. "So why did you leave?"
"I am going to be eighteen soon, I have been with Quint since I was fifteen and I started thinking, do I still want to be here next year, or when I am twenty, or twenty five and getting really old?" he shrugs. "And I am kind of getting bored and am thinking that I want to do something more than sail around on the ship doing nothing." That doesn't sound like Topher, he's pretty much the laziest person I've ever met. "Then Tallis told me he had your address and that you had not died or anything so I thought I would come and find you because you said I should if I ever wanted to." I did say something like that to him just before I left. "And it was either here or go back to Surosa, and I do not think that there is anything left there for me."
"Are you sure that there wasn't any other reason you left?" I frown. "You didn't fall out with Quint?"
"A bit," he admits. "He got a new pet to replace you." Ah ha. "And I hate him."
"You hated me at first."
"No," he shakes his head. "I never really hated you, you just annoyed me." He told me he hated me on several occasions, but now isn't the time to remind him. "This new one, he is a fucking sneaky cunt." The c word, Topher really must hate him, he always used to reserve that for Tobias. "He is sixteen and all blond and blue eyed and looks like a fucking angel, but he is not. He gave himself a black eye and told Quint that I had done it, and Quint believed him, it was even worse than when you broke my nose."
"I did not break your nose," I run my finger down his nose to prove that the bone has no kinks or knots in it. "I assume him doing that was part of a long running battle between the two of you."
"Maybe," he admits. "But Quint put a ring in him and he keeps taking him to bed and he hardly ever takes me any more." Topher looks like he might start to cry, and I feel really sorry for him. I'm pretty sure that Quint loves Topher, but I don't think he'll ever see him as anything more than a pet. Topher loves Quint, but he wants to be more than a pet, or at least the only pet, but it doesn't work like that, and I'm guessing that Quint has been far too busy enjoying the novelty of his new pet to realise how much the whole thing is upsetting Topher.
"Did you tell Quint you were going?" I ask.
"Yes, he said he had seen it coming, and he gave me some money and said I could take as much of my stuff as I could fit in there," he points at the suitcase.
"You can stay here as long as you like," I squeeze his hand.
"It is a bit fucking small in here," he looks around my flat. "Do you have a bathroom?"
"Yes, and a kitchen too." Not that I use the kitchen much.
"I do not care about that," he frowns. "I want a bath, not to cook something."
I can't imagine he knows how to cook, but then neither do I. I point to the bathroom door and he stands up, before he goes in there he looks around the rest of the flat, sticking his head into the kitchen and peering out of the window. When he gets to the mantelpiece he picks up the framed photo of Jack and me and looks at it for a few seconds, then points at Jack and asks me, "Who is he?"
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