The man grabbed Connell from behind, one rough hand bunched in his collar, and the other driving in hard at his hip. He had Connell halfway to ground before he let him see his face. Connell went taut as a bow line, then dropped into a relaxed roll through the fall. Arms up in front of his face, he landed on his back, laughing.
“Galen!” he said.
Galen stood over him, face carefully blank, but Connell could see both the amusement and confusion on his face. When they were standing, Galen had a few inches on him, but now he towered over Connell, the lines of his shoulders smeared in the sunlight behind him. “You used t’be better than that,” he said.
Connell laughed a little harder, then peeled himself off the street. “You used t’be scrawnier.” He clapped his friend on the shoulder. “You didn’t hit that hard.”
“Huh,” Galen said. He looked at Connell suspiciously.
Connell didn’t let go of his smile, resting his hands on his hips. “You got here early.”
“Yeah,” Galen said. His eyes narrowed.
Connell leaned his head forward to look at him. “You wanna come inside? Or do we need t’stay out here t’get in a proper fight?”
“Would you hit me right now?” Galen asked.
Connell tried not to look surprised, but it wasn’t a question he’d expected. “Come on, man…”
“You should have sent me flying just then,” Galen said. “I know you can do it. Fresh off a boat, and I say hello by tryin’ t’grind your face into the pavement and you just laugh? What are you going easy on me for?”
Connell paused, considering him. “I’m not.”
Galen shook his head, pulling in a breath. Connell thought he was about to laugh, but it wasn’t an easy move. “Just ask.”
Connell hesitated. He waited for Galen to look away, or hold up a hand to take it back, or fold into silence. Galen just looked back, even and steady as he ever was. Steadier, maybe. As a kid, he’d always been quiet when it suited him, and stood immoveable when it suited him. Now silence hung light on him and his stillness was rock solid, confident as a mountain facing into the wind. Connell suddenly noticed his own shifting – his feet against the ground, his arms swaying at his sides, his chest rising and falling. He slipped his hands into his pockets to square them.
“You okay?” Connell asked, quiet.
Galen nodded once, definitively. “Yeah.”
“You’re sure?” Connell asked. “I mean. You’re home. And you don’t come home much. I don’t wan–”
“I have business here,” Galen told him.
Connell cocked his head to one side. “Business?”
“I’ll explain later,” Galen said. “Ask.”
“It all go down the way they say?” Connell asked.
“The fight? The wreck?” Galen nodded. “Yeah.”
“And she…” Connell stopped, hoping Galen would fill in the blank. Galen didn’t move, and Connell picked his words carefully. “She’s gone?”
“D’you see her with me?” Galen asked.
Connell forced himself not to look away. “You okay?”
“I’m angry,” Galen told him. His voice didn’t break, stayed one straight line coming off his tongue, but his tone softened. He clenched his jaw, held it for a heartbeat and relaxed. He gave Connell a shallow shrug.
“I’m sorry,” Connell said.
Galen shrugged again. “Angry feels appropriate, all things considered. Feels healthy.”
Connell laughed, almost stopped himself, but didn’t know what else to do.
For the first time, Galen cracked a smile. He looked away, grinning, silently laughing too. Sucking in a breath, he shoved down into the pockets of his jacket. He looked back at Connell. “Convinced now? I’m not a wreck myself? Still me?”
Connell nodded. “I’m sorry I didn’t slam you into the ground when I had the chance!”
Galen shoulders shook, but his laughter stayed quiet. “Good. Then you’ll be ready to say yes.”
“Yes to what?” Connell asked.
“They gave me a boat,” Galen told him.
Connell stopped laughing, quick, eyes wide. “Like… gave you a boat?”
“And a set of Captain stripes.” Galen shook his head, like he couldn’t quite believe it himself. “I’m suppose to pick the pretty thing up here. She’s still basically a rib cage, but they swear she’ll be seaworthy in a few weeks.”
“Congratulations,” Connell told him.
Galen accepted it wordlessly. “I need you as First Mate.”
“No…” Connell said, slow. “You don’t really want me. I’m sure you got better men floating around Lesser, or–”
“I promised you,” Galen said. Helplessly, he spread his hands, still in his jacket pockets. “Promises two decades old are still promises.”
“No,” Connell said. He shook his head.
“Yeah,” Galen said, solid, unquestionable.
Connell blinked at him. “Oh, yeah,” he murmured. “You’re still you.”
Galen, grinned, slow and steady and brilliant. “You really thought I would break?”
My friend, Kid is a thief! She stole the first line of this story for a piece of fiction over at her blog. Be sure to check it out.