Chapter 12:

Post Romantic Stress Disorder

The Bushranger's Bayonet


“Miss Burrows, Love is war; and I am going to win”
Those words echoed through Mara’s mind over and over, taunting her. The memory of Lyra’s smile. She shuddered at the thought of it. ‘Jack almost went off with that woman. What would’ve happened to him?’ was all that ran through her head. The possibilities rattled around in her head like spiked iron balls. What hurt her the most was the possibility of being left out of his life.Bookmark here

As they wandered through the bush near their campsite picking ingredients, her mind was abuzz with possibilities. She had a material piece of her objective now; tangible evidence she was on the right track. All that is needed now is to keep going. The herbs going into her pouch became less and less the occupation of her mind until she was searching for and picking them automatically. Too wrapped up in her what-if scenarios, she didn’t even notice Jack until she bumped into him headfirst.Bookmark here

Mara’s arse hit the dirt half a second later, A few loose plants falling from her hands. Jack held a hand out to her.
“You okay, Mara?”
After a second or two, she nodded slightly and took his hand. While pulling her up, Jack pulled her into a rough embrace. Not one from a lover, but from a sibling.
Mara’s heart skipped a beat. She yelped slightly. Deep down, she knew what this hug meant to him, but that didn’t stop her mind from going wild.
“I’m worried about you, ya know. You’ve been acting weird since we took the slime contract.”
Mara swelled up at this, grabbing him tightly.
“I didn’t want you to go off with that witch. You have a home and a family.”
Jack sighed. “I was never going to actually go with her. I have my place and it’s not in some stuffy well-to-do’s house, wearing suits and eating weird food.”
A single tear rolled down her face as she buried her face in his neck.
“Don’t ever fucking do that to me again, okay? Don’t ever threaten to do that again.”
He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know what to do. She had him locked down, unable to do anything at all. The others were in the surrounding bushland picking wild herbs for potions and tonics. There were no monsters nearby to bother them. Not even Cat could break them apart now.
His mind drifted to the events of the night before...Bookmark here

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The five of them sat around a campfire, eating fresh spit-roasted kangaroo meat, not saying a word. The promise of a fancy dinner seemed to have vanished in front of them, being nothing but pain and conflict all along. Mara sat with her back to the fire, the rest transfixed on the flames.
Finishing his food, Jack stood up and walked off.
Mara said nothing.
With a microscopic sigh, he headed off to a nearby tree. Climbing up into its upper branches, He put his feet up and began to just look into the distance.
A streak of black.
A rustle of branches.
“You doing alright mate?”
With almost no warning, Cat’s voice could be heard to his left. Jack didn’t flinch, this was completely normal now.
“I’m just trying to think is all. Mara’s been acting really fucking weird since we took that contract and it seems like she hates me now.”
Cat sighed. “Open your eyes boy, and then you might see the truth.”
Jack looked at Cat with a strange expression. “We’re the same age, don’t say stupid shit.”
She made one of her rare chuckles. “I’m not as young as I look, but in this type of wisdom, I am far older than even that.”
He looked away to the setting sun, it’s red and purple streaks clinging to the fading light, nodding slightly.
“Yeah, I see your point.”
“Yet you cannot see the signs in front of your damn face.”
Jack’s head snapped to look at her. Cat was staring into the middle distance, not even trying to match his gaze.
“What signs? There’s no signs in front of me, just a confusing mess! I’ve done all I can. I turned Lyra down, I’ve given Mara her space, apologized as many times as I could. What else can I do?”
“Think about what you see. Learn to see through the perceptions of your eyes. They can deceive you, don’t trust them.”
“Wait, what the fuck are you o-”
She was gone.
Jack sighed, knowing he’d get nothing more out of Cat for a while. She’d just shat a twisted bundle of riddles into his lap and called it a gift.
‘It’s better than nothing.’ He admitted silently to himself. Jack stayed in the tree as he watched the sky turn from purple to deep blue.Bookmark here

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Locked in Mara’s embrace, Jack couldn’t escape without making it weird. He didn’t want that tension back. It had felt to him like being wrapped in barbed wire, restrictive and painful, made worse the more he struggled.
Jack just stood there and held her, not really caring about what was going on around them. His stance relaxed until his balance was completely at Mara’s mercy.
That was a rather stupid idea.
Mara leapt up, still holding Jack tightly, knocking him into the soft bed of leaves behind them. He landed with a loud thump as Mara ended up on top of him, grinning like a giddy child as she nuzzled up against his neck.
Jack didn’t know what to do. Lacking any understanding, he just lay there and accepted it. After a minute, a small branch covered in leaves hit Mara in the small of the back.
“Get a room for fuck sake”, came an amused voice from above, before disappearing in a dark streak. Mara, suddenly brought back to her senses, leapt up and away before scampering off like a startled animal.
A hand reached down from the edge of Jack’s peripheral vision. He took it and was greeted with Cat’s now familiar face.
“Do you see what I mean now?” She pried.
“Not exactly, but I see there is something there.”
Cat nodded with a slight smirk. Bookmark here

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Back at the campfire, the four of them sat around the flickering flames as the orange glow of the sunrise began to fade into the blue of the coming day.Bookmark here

Reaching into his satchel, Jack produced a bottle of local whiskey.
“Not the time” Cat quipped, her tone not deviating from her norm in the slightest.
“I’m not gonna drink it” he chuckled “well at least in its current state.”
As if on cue, the both of them produced their little brewing kits. Full of different ingredients, some local and others imported, it was a chemist’s Christmas in a single box.
Mara reached over and grabbed it while Jack reached for his mortar and pestle.
“Oi! I was using that.” Jack protested.
Mara just chuckled and took a swig of the cheap liquor.
“I know, but I need to take the edge off.” She said before giggling loudly. Jack stood up and yanked the bottle out of her hand.
“That is for the potion mix, not you.”
“Doesn’t mean I’m not gonna have some!”
Jack rolled his eyes. “You are just ridiculous.”
Mara simply laughed as she wandered off into the bush. Cat had finished mixing her paralytic and had pulled out a pot full of animal fat before she began to mix it all together. After about a minute, she threw the small stick she’d grabbed to mix it onto the fire so that it wouldn’t harm anybody she didn’t want it to.Bookmark here

Arthur piped up for the first time since getting ‘his contract’ back on the estate. “Why are you drinking the potion mix? We need that.”
Jack smirked. at least one person was on his side, even if said person was just Arthur.
“You see? You can’t be drinking the potion booze.”
She smirked, yanking the bottle out of his hand again.
“Stop me.” Mara said playfully before lifting the bottle up and filling her mouth with the high-proof liquor.
Jack stood up, leaving the half-finished healing potion on the ground next to the fire. It slightly fizzled as the ingredients started to dissolve in the little alcohol that was already there. He reached out tentatively for the bottle but Mara pulled it away.
“Nope, all mine.” She said cheekily, taking another swig of the bottle.
Jack rolled his eyes. “Oh for fuck sake, cut this crap.” He remarked in annoyance. Just as his fingertip bruised the neck of the bottle, she leapt backwards and out of his reach.
“Buzz off, shitcunt, I’m havin’ a drink here.” Mara proclaimed loudly before taking another swig.
Jack jumped forward again and grabbed her wrist instead. Her cheeks went red and her grip went slack. Slipping from her hand, the bottle began to slide out of her fingers. Whipping his other arm around, Jack caught the falling bottle. Letting go, he promptly turned around and sat back down. Mara stomped her foot in frustration, puffing out her cheeks. Stomping over, she pulled the now half-empty bottle out of his hand and ran off into the bush yelling at the top of her lungs. “Catch me now dickhead! WOOOOO!”
Jack just huffed and slumped down to watch his potion.
Cat huffed in annoyance and leapt up into the trees to give chase.
“Connie, got any booze left?”
The big man silently passed him a bottle full of clear liquid. Jack uncorked it, filled the potion the rest of the way and took a swig.Bookmark here

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Mara sat atop a fallen tree, several meters above a dried creekbed that seemingly hadn’t run for decades, humming a happy tune and dangling her legs over the side. A stark contrast to the flustered frustration playing itself out on her face. Leaping up from the shady creek bed behind her, a familiar black streak settled next to Mara.
“You don’t have to go so hard on him, you know. He can’t see what I can.”
Mara laughed, holding out the half empty bottle. Taking the bottle, Cat had a swig.
“I have the bird's eye view of your crazy scheme, cut the man some slack.”
Mara reached again for the bottle. “What crazy scheme are you talking about? I’m running a few at once.” Mara replied with a strong hint of snark.
“You know exactly which one I’m talking about. The one that’s got you stealing the liquor. The one that’s got you acting like, well, this.” Cat gestured to Mara in general.
“Oh, that one…”
“Yeah…”
“What do you really want from him?”
Mara sighed, taking another swig from the bottle. “I want him to see me for who I am. I want him to see me the same way I see him.” She hung her head, clearly not liking this at all. A single tear rolled down her cheek, falling off her jaw and onto her leather boot, darkening its colour noticeably.
“I want him to see the truth.”
“Then what is the truth? What do you want Jack to see?”
She looked away in discomfort.
“I-I-I don’t know.” Mara managed to stammer out.
Cat chuckled solemnly. “So you want him to see the truth but you yourself can’t see it? The blind cannot lead the blind. To make him see, you must learn to do it yourself.”
Her words stung like the graze of a bullet on exposed flesh.Bookmark here

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“I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know why She’s been acting like this but I’m damn sure that I’ve done something.”
Connie gazed into the middle distance, another liquor bottle dangling from his massive fingers.
“I’ve not dated any broads meself, buts I’ve seen this sorta shit a few times. They gives ya the runaround ‘cause they wants ya ta do something for them. It’s a crocka shite to deal with and makes ma head itch.”
He casually scratched his balls while taking a swig of the bottle. Jack took one for himself.
“I just don’t get what’s goin’ on with her.” Jack pointed out. “I bet she’s nowhere near typical to what you’ve seen. None of our kind are.”
Connie chuckled and slapped Jack on the back, making him gasp a bit.
“This ain’t a bushranger thing, it’s a woman thing. Youse gots to see that much. What we are might have some small role ta play, but it’s not gonna change th’ facts.”
Jack looked blankly up at the sky in frustration. Thin wispy clouds streaked across the azure sky. He took another swig of the bottle, the alcohol burning his throat a bit.
“If only I could figure out what she wants from me. That'd make my life a hell of a lot easier.”
“I can’t show you what she wants, you’se gotta see it fer yerself.” Both of them took a swig from their bottles at the same time, almost in unison.
“You’re no fuckin better than Cat right now.”
“Sorry I can’t be any help, mate.”
Arthur had wandered off sometime during the conversation, following the flow of voices over to where Cat and Mara sat.Bookmark here

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“I just don’t get how I can open his eyes. What do I have to do to get his attention?” Mara’s frustration was clearly audible as Arthur crouched in a bush about twenty meters behind them, quietly listening and trying to understand.
“It’s very simple. All you need to do is say those three little words. Say them to his face and make sure there’s no way he could misinterpret them. That’s how you do it.” Cat stated flatly. She was well aware of their small guest, but didn’t want to break the flow of this discussion. It was far too entertaining to cut short now. She wanted to help, though only to further the drama. Cat had never stuck to a group long enough to see such relationships change and form.
The drama of it. It nourished her soul in a way nothing else had ever done before. It cut through her carefully curated shell and filled a space she thought had been sealed off long ago.
“I can’t do that! What if he freaks out? What if he takes it the wrong way? What if it ruins what we already have. He sees me as a twin sister or something, I don’t know.” Frustration led to slight panic as Cat just drank it all in. She put a reassuring hand on Mara’s shoulder.
“That’s the only way it will truly work.”
“I-I couldn’t. It’d put too much at risk. Jack’s been a part of my life forever. I don’t want him to leave because of my stupidity. I don’t want to lose him.”
Cat thought for a second, putting her hand down onto her lap. It was a complex issue, especially since she didn’t know Jack nearly as well as Mara. They’d spent about two weeks together at most. Adequate to establish rough patterns but nowhere near enough to know how he’d react in such a situation. An annoying dilemma that could derail her fun.Bookmark here

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“I can only see what I can see. I can’t read minds. I don’t think anybody can.”
“Not anymore. That sorta stuff ‘as been illegal for centuries and then lost.” Connie remarked
Jack was spooked. “Ha ha funny man. I’m being serious here.” He took another swig.
“She’s been acting weird recently. I can’t really see what’s going on. I could’ve sworn she hitched her skirt up at some point and was walking kinda funny. I thought she’d adjusted her belts wrong and was trying to hide it in front of the client.” He paused to think. “It doesn’t make sense though.”
“I heard what she said t’you in th’ gulley.”
His surprise was evident in his expression. Connie smirked as he took another swig. “We all heard. It’s clear to me that she wanted ya t’ look at her instead of Lyra. Why else wouldn’t she have just adjusted ‘er belts? It wouldn’t be unprofessional in th’ slightest and yet that never occurred to ya? Baffles me it does.”
Jack looked at him confused. “Why would she want me to see that?”
Connie slapped Jack lightly on the back of his head.
“Why do ya think she’d want ya to see it? You daft cunt, pay attention!”
Jack’s eyes seemed to almost pop out of his skull in surprise.
“You really think she feels that way?” He blushed slightly and shifted a bit in the dirt, taking another swig from the bottle. It was hard to tell whether the blush was embarrassment or intoxication now.
“I don’t think I could confront her about this. I don’t want to screw this up. We’ve got a good thing going, y’know? She’s like my sister and my best friend. If something goes wrong, I could lose her. That’s one risk I don’t really want to take right now.” His hesitation was clearly evident in his words. “If she confessed to me, I don’t think I’d even know how to feel, let alone saying something like that myself. Who knows what’d happen.”
Connie sighed, standing up with the bottle still in hand. He knew there was nothing more he could do.
“Good luck mate. I know ya can do it.”Bookmark here

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Cat kept probing, trying to spur Mara on.“You want to pull him closer, but don’t want to push him away then? You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Mara nodded, knowing this was all too true. This’d be a risky play, but there wasn’t any other option.
“I’ll just have to make him so thirsty that he can’t afford not to drink. I can’t go to him, he needs to come to me.” Mara smirked in a cheekily devious manner; like a small child planning an innocent prank thinking it was a masterful scheme.
Cat stood up and stretched, not making a single sound.
“Well then, I guess we should head back and pack up. Can’t live like this forever now, can we?”
Mara made a non-committal noise as she rose.
“Yeah, I guess we can’t.”
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