In the dark, on the open ocean, the creak of a cabin door could be timed to fit under all the yawnings of the other timbers. Zain had mastered it, somewhere in the thousand doors that he wasn’t quite supposed to open. Even anchored in the bay, hull seated on the hushed waves, he could do it. Jaera didn’t hear him push through the door, or slide past the curtain that split her apprentice bunk from the rest of Toar’s cabin. She didn’t notice him at all, until she caught the shape of him and the smudge of his blonde hair standing still in the corner.
Still half asleep, she opened her eyes, but didn’t move.
Neither did he. She thought, at first, that he was leaning against the wall, but he wasn’t. He swayed on his heels with the ship, arms hung loosely at his sides, and almost, to her groggy mind, looked like he was floating, waiting, touching nothing but the air.
A few moments slid by. Or maybe it was minutes. Jaera blinked and held her eyes closed for too long, and he still stood there.
Just before she thought she might fall back to sleep, she opened her mouth and murmured, “I’m trying to figure out if ignoring you will encourage you, or muck up whatever joke this is.”
Zain sucked in a quick breath. “You can see me?” he whispered.
Jaera propped herself up on her elbow. She combed her hair back from her face with her fingers, held her hand there, and stared at him. “Yes,” she said.
“You can see me,” he repeated, a little too loud this time.
Jaera pushed a finger against her lips. Looking to the curtain, she listened for half a second, waiting to hear Toar shift on the other side, then rolled out of her bunk. Padding across the wooden floor, she grabbed Zain’s wrist. He flinched. Then he twisted and gripped her wrist too, tight.
Without looking back, Jaera led him through the curtain. She glanced at Toar’s bed, found him still quiet under the blankets, and slipped out the door. Waiting one moment, she eased the door shut behind her, hidden under the next creak of the hull.
The room outside was empty, except for long table that ran down the center of it, and the round-backed chairs that ringed the table. The doors to the officer’s cabins on either side were all shut for the night while moonlight fell through the half-wall of windows at the stern. Jaera slipped past the chairs, still holding Zain behind her in her long shadow, and curled up in the padded seat under the windows. She tucked one leg under her, held the other knee to her chest, and looked at Zain.
“Yes, I can see you,” she murmured. “Did you think you’d gone invisible?”
Zain sat beside. He sank into the seat, head falling all the way to his hands. Then he laughed. It was a breathy sound, relief and and his own usual constant humor spun together. “I thought I was a ghost,” he said.
Jaera watched him in the ice-gray light, and smiled. “A ghost.”
He turned to her, grinning, and met her eye over his fingers. “Yes, I know, I’m an idiot.”
“Ghosts aren’t real,” she said carefully.
“I know,” Zain said. He shook his head. “But Terius, and Galen, and some of the others, they’ve been telling these stories, and I…” He laughed again, and hung his head below his shoulders as he leaned against his knees.
Jaera blinked, stared at him a little harder. “Wait,” she said, and suddenly felt herself snap further into waking. “You thought you died?”
He looked at her sheepishly.
“What did you do?” she demanded.
“I fell off a roof,” Zain said. He clapped one hand down on the other. “Flat.”
Jaera’s eyes widened.
“I couldn’t breathe,” Zain said. “And it hurt. Worse than that fall from the rigging – when I dislocated my shoulder? – and then it didn’t hurt. And it was so fast, I thought it couldn’t be good. And it was so quiet, Jaera. There wasn’t a single sound. There wasn’t a sound all the way here either. And no one saw me when I sneaking back on board…”
Jaera gave him a look.
He laughed realizing what he had said. His next breath was heavier than it had to be, almost another laugh, but really not. He put a hand to his chest. “And I guess I’m breathing, but I didn’t feel that either, and I just…” He shook his head helplessly.
“What were you doing on a roof?” Jaera asked.
“Winning a race,” he said. “Or, losing it, I guess.”
“Who were you racing on a roof?” Jaera demanded.
“Oh, he wasn’t on the roof with me,” Zain said. “I met him in a bar. Some hometown hero. I think his name was…” Zain paused. “I don’t remember his name. But I bet him I could get from one end of town to the other faster than him. And I got lost, and running across roofs is often faster than running through streets when you’re lost.”
“Until you fall,” Jaera said.
“Until you die,” Zain said.
Jaera came close enough to watch his eyes and brought her hand up between them. It took a moment to fill her palm with gentle blue glow. “So, you lost,” she said.
“I lost,” he agreed.
“How much did you lose?” Jaera asked. The glow brightened as she watched it, until it lit the entire side of his face, shadowless.
Zain watched her move the light from side to side and blinked against it when it came too close. “Nothing,” he said. “My reputation, maybe. The only thing you can collect from a man who doesn’t even make it to the finish line is a very good story.”
Jaera slid her hand to the side of his head, then to the front again, watching the shift in his eyes. “You didn’t even make it to the end?”
“I thought I was a ghost,” Zain told her. “What’s-His-Name was not high on my list of people to haunt. What are you doing?” He started to bat her hand away.
She caught him with her free hand, held the glow back to keep the heat away from him. “I’m checking to see if you bruised up whatever brains you keep inside that skull.”
“I’m fine,” Zain said. He tried to pull her hand away again.
“You can’t remember the man’s name,” Jaera said.
“You didn’t finish the race, you thought you were a ghost, and you decided that the first person you wanted to haunt in your afterlife, was me, not your best friend, Terius, who was twenty feet away.”
Zain blinked at her. His mouth twisted as he tried to smother a smile. “He didn’t wake up,” he said.
Jaera blinked back. “Oh,” she said.
There was a moment of silence. Then she bit her lip to keep from snickering, trying to imagine how long Zain had stood in the corner of Terius’ cabin, waiting. Then Zain covered his mouth, eyes bent in a smile, remembering whatever had happened. Slowly, they broke into laughter, Jaera bending forward until she was shaking against his shoulder.
“Oh, get off,” he said, and shoved her back, grinning.