Chapter 24: Old Friends, New Enemies

*****

If Jack thought his star was on the rise before, the Battle of Aberdeen sent it even higher. About five days had passed since the action in the bay, and the city seemed determined to outdo itself with the treatment of one of the heroes of the battle.

No matter where in the city he went, he had a crowd of people behind him. His many trips to the Admiralty building were marked with throngs of well-wishers and admirers, eager to thank him for saving the city from those evil Occitanians. He also found his money was no good in Aberdeen, and just about every time he went to eat in a public place, the cost of his meals was taken care of by the grateful owners.

When combined with his reputation after being in the Fourth Vector, it seemed there wasn't a citizen in the entire city who didn't want to ask him about his travels or find out whether all Fourthies really had horns on their heads or not. Jack had to hold back the laughter when he heard those more fanciful questions, many of them taken straight from fairy tales told by their parents when they were younger.

"Is it true they all have green skin and only come up about yay high?" asked one particular woman, who was notably missing one of her front teeth, giving her a broken smile to go with her smallpox-scarred face.

Jack smiled. "No, they all look like us, I can assure you that. Although the Lishkerrans are not exactly tall, but then again, they aren't entirely human either."

Her eyes glazed over. "Lishkerrans? I thought we were talking about Fourthies!"

The conversations all sounded the same after awhile, and although the adulation could be enticing to his ego, Jack tried to push it aside. After all, he wasn't the only one that had become a darling of the public in the last few days. Admiral Bancroft's cheers were just as loud as his own, if not louder, as were those of Admiral McKenzie, who at this very moment was on his way back to Aberdeen after a successful engagement with the Occitanians.

Of note, Admiral Reynolds was not being talked about often by the people, and Jack had a feeling that this deeply rankled the vain commander to no end. His task force had taken the worst beating from the enemy during the battle, and there were many in Bancroft's circle who thought his casualties were too excessive for his task. On that matter, Jack was actually on Reynolds' side—after all, what else could have been expected from him when his task force was expected to be the bait to lure in the Occitanians? Jack only had to marvel that his own task force only lost two ships during the fight. It seemed Reynolds was getting a raw bargain.

Even with Jack's feelings on the matter, it didn't help his relationship at all with the man. When he would run into Reynolds at the Admiralty or down near the docks, he would be the frequent recipient of an evil glare, especially if Jack was surrounded by admirers from the battle.

Jack sighed as he thought about it. The battle only served to deepen the gulf between the two men, and he highly doubted there would be any reconciliation between them any time soon.

On this particular morning, Jack was headed back to the Destiny, having finished a meeting at the Admiralty, and the first thing he did upon stepping outside was shiver. Winter was now upon them, and just the previous night, the first snowfall of the season covered the city with a blanket about three inches deep. As Jack trudged back to the harbor, his footsteps were heavy as he listened to the steady crunch of each step as the snow compacted under his foot. The wind picked up the closer he got to the ship, making him dig his hands deeper into his overcoat in order to stay warm.

Aberdeen was notorious for the wind that kicked off the bay which had a terrible habit of whipping up speed as it went down the broad city streets. It was one reason that he disliked being in the city, much preferring the calmer and warmer temperatures of Lockhaven or Belfort, which were at lower altitudes.

Even still, he was stuck here for the time being, at least until the emperor arrived. The last he'd heard was that he was on his way, his train making steady progress on its way to Aberdeen. While Jack knew the honor of meeting him personally was great, he was more curious about whom the emperor was bringing as a visitor. So far, there had been no details on that matter, and he could only wonder who was important enough to be deemed acceptable to be brought alongside the emperor.

He put the thoughts out of his mind as he boarded the Destiny, quickly making his way below deck to his quarters. Along the way, he ran into someone he didn't expect to see.

Abigail jumped when she saw him, obviously scared by the way he emerged from behind a door near her quarters.

"Jack! You nearly scared the crap out of me!" she said before she calmed down. For that split second, Jack allowed himself the moment to savor seeing the glimpse of the old Abigail.

It had only been a few days since she found out about the death of her sister, and she was still a wreck. The bags under her eyes were heavy and dark, evidence of her lack of sleep. Her hair was matted and greasy due to the lack of personal care. Even the look in her eyes was without the usual spunk or spark, something that stressed him to no end.

For that brief moment in time, he thought he saw that spark before it disappeared beneath the surface, invisible once again.

"I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were right there," he said, taking the moment to grab her shoulder. It made him wince when she pulled away, a shocking new development from the battle. Since that day, Abigail had preferred to suffer in silence, removed from him (and everyone else) so she could be on her own. She had been sleeping in her former quarters, and Jack had no doubt the dust in there was heavy since she'd all but moved into his months ago.

Abigail had been more withdrawn, but every attempt he made to be a supportive partner was rebuffed. Her behavior, which had always been personable at worst and flirty at best, seemed almost sterile in the days since the battle. Not that he could blame her, knowing the deep wounds that the loss of a family member caused, but not having the ability to comfort her wore on his conscience.

"I'm just about to head back to my quarters. Are you doing anything?" he asked, putting himself out there once more. "Come with me?"

He could tell she thought about it for several moments before the inevitable head shake began. "Not right now, Jack. I just need some more time." She pushed past him, slowly walking toward the door of her quarters.

He could feel his heart breaking. "You don't need to do this alone, Abigail. That's what I'm here for. Even Kat too. I don't like seeing you like this and suffering through this by yourself."

Tears appeared in her eyes when she turned around. "Neither do I, Jack. Neither do I."

Before he could get another word in, she quickly crossed the threshold and shut the door firmly behind her. Once more he was left speechless at her door, at a loss for anything that might mend the situation or bring them back to old times. He knew she just needed to get through her personal demons on her own terms before she could rejoin them, but it still gnawed at his heart all the same. Part of him questioned whether Abigail would ever truly go back to normal.

He had to wonder if he was seeing the end of their relationship. Such a thought was painful to even contemplate but it was possible. Death was a catalyst for change in a many people. Jack just hoped that this period was only temporary, and soon she would be back to her normal self.

He entered his quarters not long after, closing the door behind him more sharply than he realized. In doing so, he scared the other woman in his life, and she jumped at the sudden intrusion.

"Sorry," he muttered again, seeing Kat's scared face as she looked up from her book.

"Everything all right?" she asked, concern written into every contour of her face.

"Not exactly. I just ran into Abigail," he replied as he moved closer to join her on the bed.

Kat gave a knowing nod. She knew the entire situation almost as well as he did. After all, it would have been hard to disguise from her that the traditional third place in their bed was empty.

"I'm guessing she's not doing any better?"

Jack shook his head. "I can't imagine what it's like to lose a sister in that way, but I'm just really hoping she comes around soon." He slid into bed and soon rested himself over the top of her legs, laying on his stomach.

"She will, Jack. Don't worry." Kat dropped her hands to his back and began to rub him. Somehow, her hands proved to be just the magical intervention he needed, and he soon groaned against the mattress at the feelings her fingers produced.

"Feel good?" she whispered.

"Feels exquisite," he replied, his voice still muffled by the covers. After a moment, he turned to look up at her. "I just wish there was more that I could do. She doesn't seem to want to talk to anyone, let alone me."

"Maybe she just needs her space, Jack. As far as sisters go, she and Anna were relatively close. I remember her telling me how devastated she was when Anna transferred to the Valiant."

"A transfer because of me," muttered Jack.

"A transfer regardless," corrected Kat. "The reason doesn't matter."

Jack scoffed and turned his face back toward the mattress.

"It's not just us that she's acting like this towards," said Kat softly. "It seems to be everyone."

"I'm not sure that makes me feel any better," he replied. "If she were upset with us, at least there could be hope of making things right. She just feels . . . cold now. Emotionless even. I don't know what to do to help."

"Jack, you've done everything you can. You're the one that still shows up at her door every night offering to talk, right?"

"Right."

Kat smiled. "As do I each morning. When she wants to talk, she'll let us know. For now, we just need to give her time to process. She knows we're here for her. Everyone processes death differently. I think with enough time, she'll realize it's okay to get back to normal. We'll be here waiting when it does."

"I just hope it doesn't take too long."

"Me too," said Kat with a soft giggle. "You've been wearing me out in the meantime."

She wasn't exaggerating. With Abigail sequestered in her quarters for the better part of the week, he wasn't able to divide up his sexual appetite between both women at all. Kat had received the full brunt of his affections, which she had always done willingly up until now.

Jack made a face. "Is that your way of telling me we need to slow down?"

She started to laugh and then shook her head. "Not at all, Jack. I'm always here when you need me." She reached down and grabbed one of his ass cheeks. "Always."

"Good to know," he said with a chuckle. In doing so, he turned around, his hand finding its way up her shirt. His fingers trailed along the soft skin of her stomach until he came to her bra. Kat sucked in air while his hand slipped under the cup and found its way to her nipple.

She squirmed playfully and batted his hand away. "Give my boobs a break at least though," she teased. "They already hurt from the extra attention!"

Jack grinned and grabbed the book from her hand, tossing it out of the bed. She gave him a look of mock anger before letting the facade slip, her arousal just visible below the surface.

"Jack, behave yourself!" she teased as he pushed her down on the bed and started to remove her clothes. Her hands acted differently from her words, actively seeking to remove her clothes as quickly as he was trying to disrobe her. She reached into his trousers, grabbing his rapidly-inflating erection and cooing at the touch.

"I love feeling how hard you get for me, Jack," she said as she locked eyes with him.

"I guess we need to do something about that then, don't we?" he asked, as he lined it up with her lower half. Her covering of pubic hair tickled the head before he aimed low enough to slide inside her.

For the next fifteen minutes, they were content to enjoy their passion and Jack soon felt himself boiling over the edge, unleashing a healthy load inside of her. Kat's face assumed the same dreamy expression it always did after her orgasm, her blonde hair a mess as it draped around the pillow while her finger absentmindedly pulled some of his escaping cum from her thighs to bring to her mouth. She always enjoyed tasting him after their juices had mixed together and today was no different.

She didn't rush to get redressed either, seemingly content to lay there fully nude despite it being nearly the middle of the day.

"You might give me another idea, laying about like you are right now," said Jack as he appreciated her naked body on top of the blankets.

Kat giggled. "Maybe that was the idea the whole time?" She snuggled up against him, draping her leg over his possessively while her face pressed against his chest.

Time always lost its meaning when they could enjoy their post-coital closeness and now was no exception. Jack wasn't sure how long they stayed like that, but it was long past noon when Kat finally stirred, having dozed off for a good portion of the time.

She gave a slightly embarrassed look as she wiped some drool off his chest. "How long was I out for?"

"About an hour, more or less," he replied with a grin.

She took a deep breath and then rested her head against the pillow. She remained quiet, forcing him to look in her direction. When he did, he could see her gaze was far away, looking beyond the bulkheads of the ship.

"What's on your mind?" he asked.

"Home," replied Kat briefly before she turned to him with a small smile. "It's the farthest away from it I've ever been. I've been gone for so long now that sometimes I find that I can't quite picture it like I used to."

Jack pulled her closer. "What do you picture when you think of home?"

She smiled. "The palace back in Kalmar. How my own quarters used to look like. I used to have this beautiful open balcony that looked out over the city and the bay. My room was so comfortable, even the bed seemed to be just perfect for me. It's the little things, you know, Jack?"

He nodded but otherwise remained silent.

"Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever see the city again. See the sun shine on that beautiful city like it does every afternoon. I've learned to deal with being homesick. It never hit me so hard when we were in Picardy, for example. Even when I was with Evelyn at the cottage, I still had some semblance of that home feeling. I'm not sure if it's the distance that does it now, but I can feel it pulling at me by the day, a feeling that just gets stronger."

"Have you ever wondered if that feeling might be strong just because of the nostalgia alone?" he asked.

Kat's eyebrows scrunched in confusion. "What do you mean, Jack?"

"I mean have you ever considered that it just might be your memories of home and not actually being there? What if you get there and it's not as good as you remembered? What if it's actually quite different, and you feel like you really don't belong there after all?"

Her confusion didn't disappear. "I'm not sure I'm following you, Jack. How could I feel that way about home?"

He took a deep breath. "It's the way I feel about Java," he said quietly.

Recognition sparked in her eyes. "Oh, I see now." Her hand reached out to caress his back.

It was hardly the first time they've touched on such a subject, but it was the first time he'd expressed it in such depressing and overt terms. The simple fact of the matter was that Jack thought he'd feel better by being home. The reality was that Java felt less like home the longer he stayed here.

"I'm not sure if I've just been gone for too long, or perhaps it's the thought of Galicia that's never far from my mind, but I could honestly leave Java tomorrow and I don't know that I'd feel any regret about doing so."

Kat continued to rub his back silently, letting him talk.

"Something has become apparent to me though. If I feel this way about Java now, with all the intrigue and betrayal that seems to be going on, who's to say that it will get any better?" he asked when looking at her.

"It certainly sounds complicated enough as is," she admitted, remembering their frequent late night talks.

"But you know what might not be so complicated?"

Her eyes searched his.

"Galicia," he finally admitted.

"Galicia," she repeated.

"Maybe this home feeling, this sense of belonging that seems to have abandoned me once I got home can be found there. I'm fully Galician, right? My ties to Java are minimal. Maybe I'm just searching in the wrong place."

"You know what we would have to do if we go back though, Jack," she warned. "We can't just go there peacefully. There would be a war."

"War is something we can't seem to get away from," he replied. "But perhaps we might have a chance. The last message I received from Picardy was that their army recaptured Burwick and they were moving south to take Zarah. Who knows, by the time we arrive, they may have kicked the Swabians out. At that point, they'll have a battle-hardened army with no enemy." Jack took a deep breath. "Maybe at that point, we could consider using that force to propel us to Galicia."

"I think the people would be happy to have you back, Jack," she whispered quietly. "They've waited a long time to see their rightful king. If we go back, they would welcome you with open arms."

Jack nodded slowly before turning to her. "Well then, that should be the course that we plan. As soon as we get back. I don't know what we'd do with these ships or how they might feel about my decision, but that's an outcome we'll just have to plan for."

Kat beamed with a smile before leaning in to kiss him deeply. "I know we'll figure out a way to do it, Jack. I just know it."

He smiled silently. He was glad that she felt so confident, even as he could feel his nerves already starting to pulse at the very idea. There were so many variables and so many things that could go wrong.

Yet, he felt like he owed it to the Galician people. He owed it to himself to truly find that sense of home that he'd been missing.

The rest of the day was spent in the usual manner, with Jack soon retiring to his desk to catch up on some work while Kat read on their bed. It was only once the sun had dipped below the horizon that Twitch showed up with a fresh dispatch.

"What do they have for me now, Twitch?" asked Jack as his deputy walked in the room.

Twitched handed it off to him. "The emperor has arrived, Jack. Bancroft is requesting your presence at the Aberdeen palace tomorrow morning at ten o'clock sharp to meet him."

*****

To say that Jack was somewhat nervous on his approach to the palace that next morning was an understatement. Despite the cool breeze in the air, his palms were already sweaty and he could feel his heart beating wildly in his chest. After all, it wasn't every day that an ordinary Javan got to meet their emperor, especially for a personal request on his part.

It was late enough in the morning that the streets were already bustling, and Jack had to weave his way through those still going to work and those that recognized him and wanted to meet him. More than once he had to disengage, citing a pressing need to get to his meeting on time, leaving many of them with disappointed faces or without a story to pass along to their children.

At one point, he even had to dodge a more aggressive lady who was content to walk alongside him all the way to the main gates of the palace. Jack had seen the look of hunger in her eyes before—a look that he often associated with Kat or Abigail—and he had no doubt what her true intentions were.

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https://blogs.lanecc.edu/intro2mediaarts/2015/10/20/a-world-of-manga/

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