There was not a cloud in the sky.
The sky was as big as the sky on the Great Plains, bigger even, what without the jagged ridge of the Rockies lining the west. It was one of those skies where it actually looked less impressive because there were no clouds and no moon, no contrast, just the gradual fade from deep blue to dusty white on the horizon.
They were stuck.
Really stuck. On a sandbar or something. There had been a bunch of running around, and neither Blondie nor the Asshole were in evidence. There was one guy gophering between a group handling the tangle of sails and rope around the masts and then shouting down at some guys who had dived off the side to check out the damage. Hannah wandered closer to eavesdrop, but predictably they weren’t speaking English.
Hannah hadn’t actually known it was possible to get rope burns through clothes, but it was. She had scraped bruises in the pattern of twisted rope crossing down from her shoulders and around her ribs, only obvious as a strange soreness in a strange place until she peeked down her cleavage. Massaging the tender spots on her shoulders, she stared out over the ocean and thought of Florida. This was the color water they always showed in the vacation commercials.
The gibberish went on for a while, and she walked under the weirdly crooked mast toward the front of the boat before someone figured out she was loitering and stashed her back in the basement.
Hannah’s head snapped up, and someone was falling. Taking an abrupt step back, she caught a microsecond of a body moving too fast, twisting in the air— the shock of weight hitting the deck burst outward with a resounding punch, quivering up her legs. The Twerp landed in a crouch on the balls of his feet and the tips of his spread fingers, and she could have sworn she saw his body physically rebound. He stood straight up like he hadn’t just fallen two stories head-first, and made for the gathering around the railing.
“Shouldn’t he be dead?” she complained, loudly, pointing. “Or like, maimed?” No one paid any attention to her, except one kind of burly, bearded guy, who had maybe shouted the warning. She waved just in case.
Stripping out of his clothes as he walked, the Twerp handed them to a brown stocky guy, and climbed up onto the railing and made a passable dive. Hannah managed to shoulder her way into the front row in time to see him surface, black hair slicked back, snorting water. While he treaded she tried to figure out what he was doing. Then he went blurry.
Hannah found herself blinking, eyes fighting to focus like after a tiny bug got caught in her eyelid, but it wasn’t working, and the grey shape was expanding, pushing water away in swirls, coming back into focus, becoming crystal clear.
Hannah felt the layer under her skin go cold.
Treading water instead of the Twerp was a cat.
The size of a fucking car.
It’s okay Hannah, it’s just a hallucination. Don’t cry.
A fucking car.
“That, is impossible,” she said, because it made her feel better.
“Why?” the stocky dude with the Twerp’s clothes asked, looking over at her around a sheet of really straight hair.
“I dunno, the law of conservation of matter?” Shit. Shit. Shit. She could accept being kidnapped by Dungeons and Dragons freaks. But now there were million-dollar special effects. Shit.
Sucking in an almost audible breath through its flaring nose, the cat dove, water roiling behind it. The blob of tan grew less and less distinct, and then the aquamarine water suddenly became dark and cloudy, puffs of sand rolling outward. The boat lurched, and the water below them turned almost brown.
The cat surfaced, sunlight catching droplets on its eyewhiskers, a ridiculous, perfect detail as it inhaled another huge breath.
“You are a figment of my fucking imagination!” she yelled. A skinny guy with a cancer-scarf eyed her worriedly and the cat fucking looked at her before diving under again.
Another lurch made a couple guys stumble back from the railing as the boat leaned at more alarming angle. The floating sand in the water kept getting thicker, and there was another lurch, a tangible scrape that shuddered up the wood. A longer scrape, a shove, and a scrape, and suddenly the ship righted itself, bobbing gently.
There was a bunch of whooping and yelling, and when he surfaced, the Twerp was a teenager again. Tipping his head back into the water, he spent a few minutes scraping sand out of his hair, then swam closer and out of sight, then heaved himself up a ladder.
“Thanks,” someone said as he sat dripping on the railing, covered in specks of sand, and he didn’t say anything back.
This is not fair.
Shut up. This is probably happening because you did something incredibly stupid.
Hannah stepped away from the railing and started heading toward the front of the ship, because maybe it would distract her from the acid lead that had just dropped into the pit her stomach.
She saw the girl helping some dude fold up the sail, and he said something to her. She got up and started heading Hannah’s way, which gave Hannah the opportunity to grab someone who might actually answer and ask them what the hell was going on.
She literally tried to grab her, and the Girl stepped swiftly out of range, eyeing her like she was being extremely weird. Hannah settled for miming shaking her shoulders.
“Why. Does he turn. Into a cat!”
The girl was still eyeing her, and pirates were staring. Hannah dropped to a huge tangle of rope and palmed her eyes.
“Sorry. It’s not your fault I am bat-shit.”
There was a certain density to the world that surrounded him.
Alan could sometimes feel when the density grew closer, or farther away, but it was subtle, because he seemed to fill up so much space outside of himself. He felt it now, a tiny shift so that the presence felt more like an edge than the radiance of a fire.
Head hanging as Litin’s warm, strong hands worked his shoulders, Alan glanced up and found Ashur leaning in the doorway, head tilted against the frame, so relaxed he almost seemed boneless. The corners of Alan’s mouth turned up slightly.
“How are you?” he asked with a faint lift of his eyebrows.
A lazy smile spread slowly across his face.
“I just fucked a hurricane.”
“You looked more like you’d been fucked,” Litin said dryly, running a hand up Alan’s neck and stretching the spine between his skull and shoulders. Ashur half-closed his eyes in a shrug, giving the faintest lift of a shoulder.
“Not much difference.” Then, back in Seclednar to both of them, “I miss anything life-threatening?”
Alan gave a single shake of his head, and Litin answered, his light accent registering more than usual to Alan’s ears.
“Aaric ‘as serious. We learned how to use the rethor.”
Alan scanned Ashur’s lean frame, finding no sign to suggest anything wrong underneath. “I’ll examine you later.”
Ashur rolled his arms up into a stretch, stepping back from the frame.
“Heard we lodged in a sandbar.”
“Efeddre dug us out.”
“‘Bout time he earned his weight,” Ashur said, without any of the rancor that rolled off him when he didn’t say it. He wandered away, toward the hatch skyside. Litin snorted lightly behind Alan, pinching the skin down his spine. Alan closed his eyes, letting a low, tight breath.
Efeddre didn’t find him until after Litin had left to take the first off-shift. Alan had finished making sure all the chests were secured, feeling the drop in the day’s heat on his bare torso when the slightest sound made him look toward the door.
“I have a favor to ask.”
Alan studied the sharp, flat angles of a face he could no longer mistake for a boy’s, or a man’s. There was something about Efeddre’s eyes, a hunter’s intensity, that reminded him of limbihte scouting the herds.
Alan used his eyes to gesture him inside, and Efeddre crossed the threshold, approaching the table as Alan half-sat on one corner.
“It’s clicking again.” He offered his wrist, and Alan took it lightly, not yet sinking beneath his senses, learning what he could from touch alone. Pale against Efeddre’s brown wrist, the thick rope of scar across the inside didn’t go much deeper than the skin; Alan had made sure of that. Manipulating the joint, Alan found the half-circular movement that produced the subtle, soundless pop beneath his fingers.
“Sometimes when I use it heavily. Faint, but deep. I’ve started compensating.” Alan wondered how long he had waited to ask for help.
“Did you feel it when you were digging out the ship?”
Finally, Alan settled under his senses, and Efeddre sucked in a sharp breath, hissing it out. He held still, whole body tensing except for his hand.
Where Ashur’s presence made the world somehow thicker, shapes deeper, Efeddre did nothing to change the world around him. But his body was somehow denser than a man’s, familiar in shape but not in substance. It was harder to follow the pathways of his body, made Alan perceive more slowly.
He felt the brittle inflexibility of the ligament, how it slipped out of the groove along the bone. The leathery quality reached up Efeddre’s arm, weaving through the connective tissue, thickening between the muscle and skin. Alan followed it briefly, listening to Efeddre’s tightly controlled breathing.
Shifting his weight on the edge of the table, he motioned with his head for Efeddre to sit down. When he did, Alan used his thumbs to spread the meat of his palm, holding until some of the hardness released. Someone flashed past the door in his peripheral vision, not pausing to look inside. He moved to circle Efeddre’s wrist and gently pulled on each of his fingers in turn. At the middle finger the hand twitched, half-rotating, and Alan held the traction longer.
“It needs to be drained.” Efeddre didn’t object, so Alan went to the chest where he kept his needles.
Tracing the line from the thumb to the forearm, Alan carefully punctured Efeddre’s flesh in a short row, rotating each needle instinctively. He pierced three points where the pethert would stagnate most. Efeddre never flinched. Only two of the points bled, welling into dull, red drops. Alan massaged the skin until they wept clear.
Taking the squat, carved box of salve he had brought with the needles, he said, “Stretch it like I did through the day, or ask someone to.” The salve was half-melted with humidity and heat, and Alan worked it into Efeddre’s wrist and hand. “Your body remembers. Until you give it a new memory, it will always come back.”
Efeddre said nothing, holding his wrist with his other hand to hold in the warmth. He examined the line of imperceptable holes along the ridge of his arm, tracing beneath them with his fingertips. Then he glanced up at Alan, holding his eyes for a breath longer than Alan would have expected, before he got up and left.
She had found a string.
She had found it, and it was hers, and she was going to use it. By God.
The ship was sitting flat in the water, sails down, with periodic conferences around the big mast. Three guys were hanging out a little to Hannah’s right whittling something, their feet covered in shavings. She’d sat intentionally close, seeing if maybe they would talk to her, or at the very least start thinking of her as part of the scenery. She tried not to stare, because one of them had helped haul her off to the basement when she first got jumped. The muscled blonde one, not the guy with black hair who’d tied her up. He’d glanced at her when she sat down, but wasn’t paying more attention to her than anyone else.
Hannah had decided to finally sit down and try to salvage her hair, which was rapidly turning into one big dread. She tried to wiggle her fingers through a chunk and force them through. They were stuck. She tried to remember what her mom had always said: Start from the bottom. What she really wanted was one of those spray bottles of no-tears detangler.
The guys were busy talking not-English and ignoring her, which was better than sending her down to the basement. Cleaning had been put on hold when she kept getting in the way of repairs. That and she’d walked in on that guy jerking off in one of the cabins, but if he wanted personal time he should have put a sock on the door. Someone probably tattled because Blondie had told her to lay off for a while. Thus the haircare. The gibberish was kind of soothing, like generic music you don’t care about on the radio.
“We ever meet Chiea, Ridiath’ll cut off his head is what’ll happen.”
The guy with a little bit of a beer gut and shoulder-length brown hair said,”Mukoina bdetnaina.” Hannah caught him eyeing her. “Piae onbtim.” She looked at him suspiciously, tearing apart a knot.
“Lahtisb bdetina,” the skinny, paler one with a cancer scarf said. “Acha, milos. Imbot detuy ganbim arlib cuna shalif arache. You have the barter-sense of a parrot. And we’re gonna throw you overboard and take bets on how long it takes you to drown. See. Can’t understand a thing.”
He was looking at her. Hannah wondered if he was talking to her. He went back to his carving. Maybe not.
What she really needed was a fucking brush. And some conditioner. Jesus. Hmm. Hannah looked up at them. One of the guys had long hair. It was worth a try. She raised her voice.
“Hey, does one of you guys have a brush?” In a normal voice she added, trying to rip a section of hair in two, “Or know how to braid? Rgh!”
The skinnier guy watched her from his stool, letting his knife dangle in one hand.
“You are completely helpless,” he said.
He jerked two fingers at her, and after a moment of incomprehension, she scooted over. Then after another second’s hesitation, she sat between his bony knees as he tucked his knife in a sheath behind his back. Holding her legs up to her chest, she felt a little odd, or maybe a little bit like she was in preschool again. He pulled her hair to get her to tilt her head back, not quite hard enough to really protest, but still startling. He started picking at the knots with his fingers, little, sharp tugs.
“Lemme use your comb, Megars.”
“Not for my own aunt,” Beer Belly said. “You don’t know what kinda nits she’s got in there.”
“At least my hands’ll smell like woman.”
“She’s not gonna open her cunt for you ’cause you groomed her.”
“If no one’s got lice so far then she don’t got any. Gimme.”
Looking ill-used, the guy with longer hair straightened to dig in a little bag on his belt, and passed the skinny dude a comb. Watching his thick, tanned forearm go past her face, Hannah wondered if this was actually really, really weird, or if it was just her.
“I think you’re gonna desire you knife,” the guy who’d hauled her to the basement said, rounding off the tip of the peg he was carving. It was the first time he’d spoken up.
“Need your knife,” comb-benefactor said, shaving off another long sliver of wood. Then he kind of poked out his lips and chin, which looked weird. “Look.” Hannah was still trying to figure out what the hell that facial expression meant when she realized the other guys were suddenly looking in that direction.
“Ahh, he’s out.” She didn’t see anything notable, but she did notice the Twerp crossing his legs to sit down on the little triangle of deck at the front of the ship. He’d sort of stood out to her ever since he’d turned into a giant fucking cat. Hannah tried not to think about that. He stared out over the ocean.
“And not helping even feed himself.”
“I’m telling you, maybe we talk to him he’ll soften up,” skinny said behind her, using short, steady strokes of the comb on a chunk of hair.
“For my mother, don’t—”
“Hey kid, when you gonna tell another story?” Skinny yelled.
The Twerp didn’t look over, and Hannah wasn’t entirely sure if the yell had been meant for him. The hands had stilled in her hair.
“Why. Do I even. Bother.”
“Come on, don’t let him know anyone listens or he’ll do it in a cabin where no one can hear. Ridiath’s never as good at it,” Beer Belly said.
“Course he knows, his brain’s not feathers,” the guy picking through her hair said, separating another sliver of knotless hair and draping it over her shoulder. Hannah took the opportunity to stare at the clouds. They looked like a dog had shredded a bag of cotton balls.
“Ow! Christ.” Hannah winced, and he tugged her head back whens he tried to pull away. Her face wrinkled, feeling like it was turning into one big sneeze that wouldn’t come. She clenched her jaw as he kept jerking through with the comb.
The other guys went back to whittling, occasionally making comments to each other. The ripped blonde finished a peg about as long as her hand and started splitting down a board to make another. It seemed like her hair was taking an awkwardly long time, but Skinny didn’t seem bored. Hannah fidgeted.
Finally, he braided it down quicker than she would have been able to tie her shoelaces, took the string when she offered it, and tied it all off.
“You’re a life saver, man,” she said, feeling the result as she moved away.
“Take care of it, or cut it off,” he told her, fishing out his knife and bracing his elbows on his knees to go back to his whittling. Hannah blinked.