Forty

Like a rubber band rebounding into place, or a magnet inexorably hurling itself at its opposite, Hannah’s out of body experience abruptly ended and she was snapped unceremoniously back into her bones.

Hannah half coughed, half retched water, like coming back from drowning. It burned through her nose, running down her chin, down her neck, between her breasts, soaking her shirt. Hannah stood, hacking, hand pressed to her throat.

“Sh-sh-sh-shit. F-f-f-uck. Shi-shi-shit, wh-whuh-why am I— Je-jes—” She screamed in frustration, hands clamped over her mouth.

Symon-not-Alan was watching her, still standing in the same place he had been, everything about the scene the same except for her. Clutching her mouth, Hannah stared wildly at him, heaving for breath through her nose.

Straightening, she stumbled past the gathering audience to the food room, the one she wasn’t supposed to go into. She shoved the door shut and crawled onto a crate in the corner and curled up in the dark.

~~~

They were smart. They gave her some time, then they sent Ridiath.

She slipped in in that quiet, barely noticeable way she had. She sat on a crate cattycorner to Hannah’s, pulled her knees up, and didn’t push anything.

“Can you tell me what happened?” she asked eventually.

“Not really sure,” Hannah admitted, tired, scrubbing at her eyes. “Not sure it would help.”

“You understand that we need all the information we can get to help Alan.” So logical. So diplomatic.

“You can’t help him. You’re the last people in the world who can help him. You need to stop trying to help him and work on dealing with your own shit.” It came out frayed with desperation, and suddenly Hannah didn’t know if she was talking about Alan or herself.

“Look, I did what I could. The rest is up to him.”

Ridiath let that sit for a few long seconds.

“What would you willing to tell me?”

It took a second for Hannah’s brain to switch gears. Then she had to think about it.

“God, I don’t even know. It’s a little too raw right now. And honestly just too fucking personal.”

“Can you tell me how he’s doing?”

Hannah tilted her head back against the wall, let out a breath. “What’s there to say? He’s fighting for his life, and he’s losing.”

“… Are you witholding because of how Ashur has treated you, or because you honestly can’t tell me anything more?”

“God’s sake, you’re like nineteen. What the fuck happened that made you so serious?”

Suddenly there was a soft, young girl naked underneath her, the dark wave of her hair piled on the bed as she cried, twisting, sobbing. Hannah felt like her heart stopped.

“Oh, shit. I just realized your name’s not Ridiath.” She blurted it, because she had to make the realization come out of her before it got stuck there, turned into a poison, an infection.

She could feel Ridiath watching her in the dark, watching her with that face where she didn’t reveal anything. She didn’t say anything. She had no idea what Hannah had seen, no idea that she could have.

“Symon’s telling the truth,” she said finally. “If Alan keeps fighting him, he’s going to end up a veggie.”

“I don’t understand,” Ridiath said slowly.

“Vegetable. Comatose. Brain dead. Not there.”

Ridiath didn’t say anything for a minute.

“You called it Symon.”

Hannah wondered for a second why Ridiath felt the need to remark on the obvious, then felt her breath hitch as she flashed back to someone watching her from a field of water, pale skin colorless hair and burning eyes, smiling.

“Oh, shit.”

~~~

Ashur stared through the crates of maps as Ridiath finished reporting her conversation with the woman. Her lhir hung at her side; there was no one to fight, but she wasn’t the only one walking around armed.

“Why didn’t you get me?” he asked numbly.

A wary pause.

“I didn’t want to interrupt the process.”

“How can you possibly be this stupid?” he exploded, the numbness shattering into something hot and jagged. “You live on my ship you follow my orders. You watched that butchering whore tear up his mind instead of getting me—” No one had gotten him. No one had told him.

Ridiath’s mouth tightened, opened, eyes flashing.

“And do you think it would have happened the way it did if you had—”

His fury took a deep, sharp dive. “You live on this ship on my tolerance. Four of my—”

“You aren’t the only one who cares about him!”

“—men spent two years mortared in cages or tortured until they will never be the same—” What are you doing? a silent voice inside him said. Nothing can come of this, this will not help anything, “—all because you couldn’t stop yourself from fucking the first drek who shoved a finger between your legs.” In the breathless wake of silence, “He was going to suicide to save you.”

Ridiath’s face had gone blank.

Empty.

She didn’t say a thing, and turned away from him.

“Don’t walk away from me,” he said harshly.

“I’m done with this,” she told him, without looking back, and disappeared through the door.

He was breathing hard, staring at the empty door frame. A scream of rage hit the outer wall, then another.

~~~

Hoisting herself up the ladder to the cabin level, Hannah was halfway down the hall when someone short, lean, brown, and soaked walked in.

“Hey, you’re back,” she said. The Twerp walked right by her, leaving a dripping trail on the floor. “Fine, don’t say ‘hi.'” He went into his room, slid the door open, and shut it behind him. “Bitch,” she said after him.

A gust through the door sprinkled her with micro drops, making her wonder if food was really worth it. A heavy thud from the back of the hall made her look behind her. God. Teenagers. He’d probably thrown something.

Folding her arms tightly across her chest against the cool, Hannah started toward the deck.

She stopped.

Shit.

It was probably nothing.

But then what if it wasn’t.

It couldn’t hurt to check.

Then again, maybe it could.

Hannah let out a groan and reversed course. She stood outside the Twerp’s door for a second before knocking.

“Hey, you okay in there?”

Nothing.

“Look, I’m opening the door. If you don’t want me to do that, speak now or forever hold your peace.”

She had to press pretty hard on the door to get the traction to push it to the side. And there he was, crumpled up like a wet rag on the floor.

“Well shit,” Hannah said, hands on her hips. She stepped carefully over an awkwardly placed leg, and squatted to find his pulse under his jaw. It was there, but slow. Freakily slow. She counted one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand… More than two seconds between beats. And he was so warm he had to have a fever.

The entire position seemed really awkward, and like the sort of thing that would instantly throw out your back. His shoulders and chest were mostly on the floor, one arm trapped beneath him, the other flung out, his hips twisted to the side. She wasn’t going to move him through, spinal injury, internal bleeding, that kind of shit.

Picking her way back over him, Hannah debated whether she needed to swallow her shit with Ashur and follow the chain of command or if telling anybody would do. Maybe telling Toney. They were always hanging out together.

Hannah braced herself for the cold again. But just then one of the taller guys —the one who danced with his scarf and had a name that sounded like Rher’s— came in from the frigid drizzle, his clothes speckled with wet, faintly sticking to his skin. His eyes sharpened when he saw her, and she wondered if he’d come in specifically to check on her or it was just coincidental.

“Twerp’s back.” She jerked her thumb toward the partly open door.

The guy whose name sounded like Rher gave her that automatically pissed off look, and she realized he might not have understood her.

“‘Bout this high,” she said, holding her hand up around her chin. “Turns into a giant cat, angsty. Passed out. In his room.” The pissed off look smoothed away, replaced by something that she assumed was understanding. “Might need the doctor.”

He was paying attention now, and moved quickly past her, kneeling in the open doorway. She figured he had it taken care of and headed out in the drizzle for another awkward dinner around the firebox.

~~~

Wiping a hand down his face, Jormrher glanced down the hall toward the darkened hatch. Crazy had gone. His eyes returned to the kid. His heartbeat was too slow, but who knew what was normal for Lridrisy. His skin was fever hot. Then again they were always hot. No blood that he could see, no bruises, nothing obviously broken. He needed to get Toney. Looking down at the slack, flat angles of his face, Jormrher rubbed his eyes and couldn’t muster any anger for how Efeddre had just dumped another problem in their laps. Sometimes he really did look like a kid.

He shouldn’t just lay there like that. Maybe he should get Toney first. Jormrher hesitated, then climbed carefully over his legs and gathered the kid’s limp, sodden body in his arms. He was surprised when he couldn’t stand at first, had to brace himself on one leg, toes gripping wet wood, before he could push himself up, Efeddre’s head lolling. Mother and aunt he was heavier than he looked. Jormrher carried him carefully through the dark to the nest of blankets toward the back of the cabin and laid him down as gently as he could. Another hesitation, and he pulled the edge of a blanket over him. Toney could get him out of the wet clothes.

Toney was on this shift so Jormrher checked the firebox first. Men were huddled around the mouth of the box eating, the fire whipping around inside. He spotted Crazy there, half a head taller even when she was sitting slouched against the drizzle. There was a little more gap on either side of her than between anyone else and no one was talking. She ate staring at her food. She glanced up just long enough to see him, then looked back down.

Anybody seen Toney?” Jormrher said. Dhomlar pursed his lips toward the bow. Jormrher rubbed his bare arms as the wind gusted, catching the ends of his headscarf.

Toney.” Toney looked up from where he watched the coast, hidden by night. Jormrher jerked his head back toward the cabins. “Kid’s back. Crazy saw him. Somethin’s wrong with him.

When they got to the kid’s cabin Toney immediately went to the back as Jormrher said, “I’ll get a lamp.” When he came back from the hold, shielding the flickering wick with a hand, he found Toney with his ear planted to Efeddre’s chest. As Jormrher hung the lamp on the hook by the door, Toney straightened.

Thank the quakers of the earth you didn’t move him.

Something in Toney’s voice made his stomach prepare to turn sour. It took him a heartbeat to answer.

I did. He was near the door.

Toney didn’t move at first, almost like he hadn’t heard him. Then he turned to Jormrher, something sick and desperate on his round face. The sour feeling flooded his gut, turning to dread.

What’s wrong?” he asked.

You can’t move them when they’re like that,” Toney said, almost frantically. “They’re so fragile then, you can’t move them. You can tell by their heartbeat, you can’t move them.” It was too late to be frantic, and Jormrher watched helplessness twist Toney’s face even as he felt the terrible weight of something that was done and he couldn’t do a thing to change it. He should have gotten Toney first, he should have, he’d thought of it, but he hadn’t. “Why didn’t she come get me?” Toney said, voice going higher, panic. “Why didn’t she come to me first? I— shit.

Jormrher felt sick. Crazy hadn’t done a thing. He was the one who had moved him, he was right there to blame, but Toney couldn’t do it.

Jormrher didn’t understand what it was, but there was something wrong. Juele couldn’t help them and the kid couldn’t stand what he did anyway.

Should I get Litin?

Litin can’t do anything for this,” Toney said, like a whispered shriek.

Is he hurt inside? What about the rethor?

Toney turned on him, brown eyes wide and suddenly bloodshot. “No,” he said harshly. “Not that.

It took Jormrher a breath to swallow, get past that look in Toney’s eyes like he was cracking, ask, “Why? Isn’t—

I won’t use that stuff on him. It might not matter for the not-Limdri. I don’t even know what it would do to him.” There was an edge to his voice, like revulsion.

The kid was so still, just lying there, breathing too deep.

What’s gonna happen to him?

Toney swallowed, didn’t say anything.

What do you need?” he asked quietly.

Staring through the floorboards, Toney didn’t answer, then shook his head.

… You want me to leave?

His voice was small. “No.

All right,” he said softly. He slid down the wall, pulled his legs up to wait.

It was a long time. Toney didn’t move, kneeling there sitting by his legs. Nothing happened.

Efeddre’s foot twitched, and Jormrher thought he heard a moan. He straightened, relief untwisting his gut. Toney didn’t move, staring. Frowning, Jormrher glanced at him, then the kid. His knee twitched, then a muscle in his calf. A finger lifted, then the edge of his wrist twisted upward. A muscle in his jaw flickered, then the corner of his eye in a rapid tattoo.

Suddenly the kid’s arms flexed toward his chest, hands flapping. He lurched onto his side, something between a moan and a scream crushed out of him as his body jerked. His head snapped back, back arching, one arm flailing against the floor. Jormrher tensed. He’d only seen this once before, a man who’d been clubbed in the back of the neck.

Toney crawled between him and the wall, catching his head before it slammed into the floor. Toney laid a hand on Efeddre’s chest as if to to hold him down, then as a flying hand with all that unreal strength nearly smacked him in the face he jerked back, holding himself. The kid convulsed, groaning like every breath of air was being squeezed out of him, something wet and bubbling shining in his mouth. His arms stuck out rigid between his half-bent legs, shaking with the force of it. He snapped up almost sitting, lurched onto his other side, limbs contorting as he made a sucking, heaving noise like a braying animal.

Jormrher didn’t know how long it took. Long enough that it was exhausting just to watch it. Toney kept him from hurting himself as best he could, but other than that didn’t touch him. For a long time he lay half on his back, feet torturously braced, keeping his hips in the air, arms flexed up, body tight as a mast stay, quivering. His body dropped, arms relaxing, and he let out a long, rattling breath. Toney stroked damp hair away from his forehead. A furious twitch beat in his cheek, teeth grinding, clacking together.

When he was finally limp, Jormrher couldn’t tell if he was still alive. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so nauseous. Moving painfully, Toney pressed the side of his face to the kid’s chest.

He alive?” He almost couldn’t ask it. Toney listened for a few more breaths.

Yeah.

… He gonna be all right?

Slowly, Toney straightened.

I don’t know.

Toney burst into tears.

He buried his face in his fists, sobbing into his lap, heartbroken. It was hard, to watch a man like Toney cry.

Pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes, Toney said hoarsely, “C’you get me a bucket with some water and some rags?

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