Ryan and I had a pretty good childhood, all things considered.
We had mutually agreed a long time ago not to mention the hand-me-down fiascos. Not the embarrassments or the petty revenges we had dealt in with the knowledge that anything I talked Mom and Dad into buying for me would one day get passed down to him. There was a pink and blue and yellow tye-dye t-shirt that had gotten burned, though the only thing that was really odd about that was that it had happened on purpose.
We had mostly agreed not to tally up who gave who more scars too. I’d gifted him a chipped tooth. He’d thrown an elbow that put a permanent line through my right eyebrow. Neither of us was afraid to use the obvious – minor – injuries to win an argument from time to time. We never talked about the white line just beneath my ribs that once needed thirteen stitches to keep my insides where they belonged. We definitely never talked about the jagged thing on his calf where bone had torn skin. We’d both covered them with tattoos of things we wanted to remember more.
After a half-drunk midnight where we both broke down the fine points of all the ways our parents had wound us just too tight and broken us for better things, we agreed that there was no need to confess sins twice. Especially when they weren’t our own.
We had survived. To the brilliant ages of twenty-seven and twenty-four, even if there were days we felt ninety, and days we felt five. We had gotten our smiles and forged our precious silences.
Sitting across from him now, though, I knew he was going to break one of them.
It had been a cold night, one of those nights that bit at fingers and ears and made Brance happy to walk slow so that the chill didn’t cut into his chest. He had been happier still to duck into his favorite tap-house, where the music was a little too loud and the dancers a little too drunk for real grace, but the room was warm and spiced and everyone was smiling.
He played cards for most the night, happily losing money. He emptied his purse on the table, bought himself a few more friends than he’d had before, and laughed with them, though very few things were funny. Then he danced – two or three wild songs – before he ordered his first round of strong drink, then sat down near the band and traded jokes with folk deeper in their cups than he was.
Someone insulted him. Taking a long drag from his mug, Brance considered punching the man for it. It had been a while since he had been in a good brawl, but it was too cold outside to be thrown out tonight. He settled for draining his mug to the last drop, smacking it down on the table, and giving the man a dirty, seventeen-adjectives-in-a-string insult in return. Brance was impressed when the man understood him and amused when he attempted to retaliate.
The baby was coming soon. Not in the next few hours, but Chaela knew it was no longer a matter of weeks, but days. A handful of days and she would hear him for the first time, instead of just feeling him and all the sharp corners of his elbows and knees.
She put her hand on her stomach, fingers spread wide to cover as much of the baby as possible, and tried to remind herself to breathe. It had been nine full months, but just a few days more was still too soon.
Chaela had felt the baby’s company for a long time now. He liked to kick. He nudged her and moved with her, woke her and seemed always curious about the exact number of ribs she owned. She knew him already, had named him so long ago. She wasn’t ready to let any of this go.
And the last time…
Chaela stopped that thought as soon as she found it. She had had it too many times before, and another repetition would solve nothing, support nothing.
The baby kicked. Chaela winced, and then she smiled.
Taryn crawled faster than any child had a right to, disappearing under table skirts and scuttling all the way across a room in the time it took his mother to blink. Chaela lost him more times a day than was good for a new mother’s heart, and always found him as he tore out into the open again, looking for new conquests.
He wasn’t a noisy baby, but he had a way of looking at Chaela like he really saw her, eyes a little too sharp in the roundness of his face. He turned his head quickly, almost knocking himself over under its weight as he threw head, neck and shoulders around to get a look at the other side of his world. Chaela felt like she caught him more than she held him, more his safety net than his caretaker.
But he laughed as soon as he knew how, grinned into the rush just before she stopped his free fall, and giggled into her shoulder when she tucked him close.
He played with his feet more than Chaela thought he would, fingers wrapped around his toes as if he was always counting them. Often he would hit his heels against the floor, listening to the thunk, as if he was trying to gauge their strength. He hung on his father’s hands, and kicked against the ground. He pulled himself up on chair legs and table clothes and walls, balance on the edges of his feet, then looked across the room as if wondering if he could make it.
Kashel understood exactly two things about the blanket-wrapped bundle of baby that his aunt carried into his house.
First, that that baby glowed brighter than the clear afternoon sunlight to her.
His aunt was bright enough herself, all blonde hair that glowed like kindling in the light, ready to catch fire at a passing breeze. Her green eyes were sharp, quick to shift to Kashel when he thought he was sneaking. Her mouth was always bent, ready to snap into a smile. The last time she’d come to visit, she’d been able to outrun him and lift him almost off his feet with one hand. It was hard to keep his eyes off her when she was in the room, just because she was exciting, just because she glowed.
But she walked in, cradling that thick, awkward bundle and couldn’t take her eyes off the slack weight inside it. She smiled, and made every smile she’d worn before look like a flat painter’s imitation. If for no other reason, he was not allowed to count that baby as a bad thing.
Connell jumped the last few rungs of the ladder as soon as he spotted Galen, landing on the crew deck with a solid thunk.
“There you are!” he said. He started toward him, smiling. “Mate’s been lookin’ for you, but, y’know, not hard, like usual. He’s mostly just shoutin’. But still, figured you would have picked a better hidin’ spot than… here. Right in the middle of somewhere…”
He stopped as he came close enough for Galen to glare at him out of the corner of his eye without turning. Galen barely moved, except to sway gently from side to side, cradling Jaera against his neck. She had one small hand locked around his collar, and her face turned into his neck, eyes closed, eyelashes dark against her face.
“Keep shoutin’,” Galen whispered. “And I’ll throw you under the keel.”
On any given day, Klaidi would have described her house as quiet, calm, and peaceful. There were seven of them who shared the rooms in shifts as their ships came in and out of port. Six of them had shared the arrangement for years, and they slid around each other like fish in a school, happy in each others turnings and never minding the frequent bumps as they came and went. The baby had not changed much, and they continued their comings and goings with hardly an unwelcome echo between the walls.
Then the baby woke on a sunny work day and decided it would be a good day to exercise her lungs. The sun had just appeared with a promise to stay round and orange the whole day through, and the baby opened her mouth and screamed. Klaidi threw the covers back and jumped to her cradle, tucking the baby against her shoulder and holding her tight until she calmed enough to eat and drift back to sleep.
“What’s wrong?” Leven asked when she crawled back into bed beside him.
She glared at his shut eyes, knowing he must have heard the baby if he’d felt her tuck herself back in. She smacked him lightly in the shoulder. “Nothing,” she said. “Go to work.”