[Memory, PM to Join] Never Close the Door

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Anaxas' main trade port; it is also the nation's criminal headquarters, home to the Bad Brothers and Silas Hawke, King of the Underworld. The small town of Plugit is nearby.

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Aremu Ediwo
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Sat Nov 09, 2019 10:24 am

Evening, 59th Roalis, 2716
The Waterfront
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Aremu left with the echo of Uzoji’s low, warm laughter in his ear. He left with the image of Niccolette’s fond smile, the one she had given him as he made to go, more understanding than he had expected from her. He left with the memory of Collingwood’s hand, stiff, but able to hold his knife and move it with careful dignity across his plate.

Aremu left with the lingering taste of a Bastian wine of rare vintage thick on his tongue. Collingwood had brought it out with a smile for Niccolette, and the three galdori had discussed it, cheerfully, in a language Aremu scarcely spoke. Niccolette had promised to bring Collingwood a bottle of a vintage from another winery, one she thought he would enjoy. Aremu had thanked both the servant that poured it and Collingwood, and he had not finished his glass.

They had ended the meal on a lemon sherbet that Aremu had found too sweet and too tart all at once. All of the lovely food made him long for nothing so much as erg gram cooked on the stove of the Eqe Aqawe, somewhere halfway across the Tincta Basta. He did not mind if he had some burnt bits scraped from the bottom of the pan, if the rice was clumped and dry, or even if the meal was interrupted by the sudden jolting of the ship. All that mattered was that the only expectation was that he would eat until full, and all the rest was made easy by it.

After dinner, they were meant to retire to Collingwood’s sitting room and talk. Aremu had stood, politely, and he had thanked Collingwood for the invitation and the excellent wine and the delicious meal, and he had apologized for needing to return to the ship, and he had lied and said that he was sorry to go. He had bowed, and he had slipped away from the sharp brightness of Niccolette’s field, the firey heat of Collingwood’s, and the sturdy heaviness of Uzoji’s, and he had looked back only once.

Aremu wondered if it would have been different, if he had been born whole. He wondered whether he could have belonged, then, too, sometimes, somewhere outside of the ship. He wondered what kind of man he would have made, and then slowly, with effort, he eased his mind off of that path, because he already knew its traces too well, and knew, too, that there was nothing to be gained in their trodding.

The evening was a warm one, by Anaxi standards, but Aremu found himself oddly chilled by the whistle of wind off of the Mahogany. He walked, slowly, along the pier, and he swallowed, hard, and felt the movement of his throat against the starched collar beneath his jacket; he traced his fingers over the cravat that held it together, and then shoved his hands into his pockets and kept walking. The waistcoat beneath, too, felt stiff against his skin, as if it was trying to hold him into a shape he could never take.

Aremu did not rush, but went slowly along the waterfront. There was, as always, that prickle of awareness down his spine, and he could not, however much he might wish, stay lost in his thoughts. He glanced around; he could not help it, especially not walking alone. He kept himself alert and aware, and he watched the faces passing him, the ebb and flow of the crowd. He checked the occasional figure sitting still against the waterfront, and none of it meant more than that he did not need to fear, not until -

He was not sure of the large, dark shape until he saw the glint of dim yellow light off the familiar twist of a scar, set against thick hair fluttering in the breeze. There was a bottle in his hand, and it did not escape Aremu’s notice. Aremu held, a moment more, because he did not think the other man had seen him, and that meant that it was a choice, still, whether to stay or to go. He could choose, he thought, uneasily, and he nearly left.

Aremu cleared his throat, sore with the scrape of all the thoughts he had held inside, and took a step closer.

“Tom,” he said, loud enough to be heard over the creaking of wood, the distant screech of harbor gulls, the slap of the waves. It must have been loud enough, because the other man turned to look at him, and Aremu tried a grin which he was not certain about. He slid his hands from his pockets, crossing his arms over his chest against the wind, and found that he was not sure what to say.

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Tom Cooke
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Joined: Fri Dec 21, 2018 3:15 pm
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Location: Vienda, but also hell
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: dear shadow, alive and well
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Sat Nov 09, 2019 10:18 pm

The Waterfront Old Rose Harbor
Evening on the 59th of Roalis, 2716
The Tincta was tossing and turning in its sleep tonight, and Tom could feel the faint spray against his face – tangling, salty, in his hair. He hadn’t pulled it back, not tonight. When he shut his eyes, he wanted to feel the wind in it, combing through it like the fingers of a mother; the tug and whisper against his scalp almost eased the ringing ache in his skull. When he shut his eyes, he breathed it in on the warm Roalis breeze: deep and fishy and old, the roiling bay, and the horizon charged with heat lightning like the inhale before a sigh. Seemed like there was something chill in it, even with how warm it was.

Wasn’t so bad down here, he thought, taking another long drink of Low Tide. He felt a funny kind of calm, like when the last dregs of a nightmare drain out of you. It was a calm with a bitter twist, like apah root.

He nestled the bottle back in his lap. He’d been perched there for some hours on the wharf, on a low railing overlooking the lights out on the bay. He was half-turned out toward the water, one leg propped, the other dangling.

He wasn’t paying much attention to passersby. He knew they were thinning out, this time of night. Roalis’ sun loped long and tireless, but it couldn’t ever quite outrun the moon and stars. The distant burble of song and laughter and light, spilling out of the bars, didn’t show any signs of letting up, and Tom knew there were plenty of places in the Rose as never slept; but it was quiet in this part of the waterfront, and he was damned grateful for it.

When he heard his name over the creaking of boots on the boards, over the lapping of the water and the creak of the rigging, it was like somebody slid a knife right through the haze of the drink and the aching. Tom might’ve recognized the voice at once, but when he turned to look, he didn’t recognize the man that went with it. An odd look twitched across his face; his heavy brow knit. He skimmed over the toffin’s clothes, first, lingering on the silky ripple of cravat at his throat. Then he managed to focus on the face.

“Aremu,” he said. For a moment, he couldn’t seem to say anything else.

He could make out the Mugrobi passive’s grin in the watery lamplight, and right off (reflexively, easily) he grinned back, like he was meeting an old friend. Being honest, he didn’t know what he was feeling. It was surreal, the sight of him in those clothes, knowing what was underneath that starched collar and waistcoat – and him in his shirtsleeves and suspenders and scuffed old boots. Surreal, too, seeing those benny threads and no woobly to go with them. He felt a familiar prickle at the back of his neck, but tonight, he was drunk enough to feel sorry for it.

His first instinct was to let out a hearty laugh, mostly put-on. He’d toss out some joke, some look at you, all dressed up; you come from some caoja? — some suchlike, something you said when you wanted to acknowledge it without going any further. He was about to, but he saw something in Aremu’s posture, the way he took his hands out of his pockets and crossed his arms, that stopped him. He didn’t think that was the right way to go about it.

A part of him asked why he cared. Another part, speaking with no words but a strangely tender feeling, didn’t need to answer. It would’ve been coarse to say something like that, something told him, and he wasn’t feeling coarse tonight.

“Didn’t know you was back in the Rose,” he said instead, simply, smiling back. It didn’t half match Aremu’s grin; there was something sad about it. Sad, but warm enough. “It’s good to see you again.”

The breeze whipped and ruffled in the rolled-up sails of a nearby ship, and Tom’s voice carried well enough to reach Aremu, but just barely. There was a reason why he’d got his name as the big, silent kov. He had a voice that scraped by on the low end of high, more sharp than rough and deep. Ever since the last time he’d broke his nose — which’d been the third, at least, though nobody but hama was keeping count — he’d talked like he had a bit of a stuffy nose.

He took another drink, then set the half-empty bottle back down. He watched Aremu a moment, his dark eyes glittering, then patted the wood on his other side with a big hand. He felt a mung for it, thinking how he liked to keep his distance, wondering if he'd just made him more uncomfortable. Too late to worry about it, now.

Whether he sat or not, Tom’d look back out over the water, following wheeling dark shapes he could barely pick out against the dark velvet of the clouds. “I come out here to watch the summer lightnin’ over the bay; I ain’t seen none yet, though.” He gestured with the bottle, the faint yellow light glinting on the tinted glass. A soft, wistful laugh. “I reckon it’s somethin’ t’ see, up in the air.”
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Aremu Ediwo
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Sun Nov 10, 2019 10:45 am

Evening, 59th Roalis, 2716
The Waterfront
Aremu watched Tom’s brow furrow in the wash of yellow light, casting heavy dark shadows over his face. He was sorry, then, that he had stopped - it would have been better to live in the pleasant fantasy where Tom would have been glad to see him, and he never had to learn the truth.

Aremu did not move, though, and it only briefly occurred to him to take himself away, quickly, before -

But it was a moment, like a cloud passing over the sun, and then Tom’s gaze was lingering on his face, and he said Aremu’s name in his soft, almost breathy voice, oddly incongruous for such a big man, and he grinned. Aremu’s had faltered, but it swelled then, reflexively, and they faded together, like the breaking of a wave against the pier.

The silence dragged on, and bit deep, but Aremu thought - oddly, senselessly, foolishly - that he could be content with that grin. His arms were still crossed over his chest, and the wind tugged at the lines of his clothing. Tom looked comfortable, and Aremu almost wished he had gone back to the ship, where he could take these things off and find himself once more.

A smile, then, weighed down by something Aremu couldn’t see, and Tom said it was good to see him. Aremu swallowed and felt his throat press against the collar. “You too,” he said, quietly.

Tom reached out and patted the wood next to him. Aremu stood, scarcely daring to - his eyes flickered from Tom’s hand, over the bottle nestled in his lap, up to his face. He had not, Aremu hoped, sounded drunk enough to forget. It wasn’t the sort of thing an Anaxi forgot, was it? Even in Mugroba, Aremu never hoped that it would be forgotten, only understood - only accepted.

He should have hesitated; perhaps he should have refused outright. But he had taken the first step before he had made a conscious decision, and then the next followed from it, slow and steady. He went cautiously, as if he might expect the invitation to be withdrawn at any moment; he went with the flicker of his gaze over Tom’s face, as if trying to understand what he saw there. Most of all, he went. Aremu crossed to Tom’s other side, and sat on the low damp wood of the railing, where the other man had indicated, and there was a warmth in his chest.

It might not, Aremu told himself, mean anything. But he sat, and he felt some of the heavy weight of the evening drain out of him, the pressure released, and he half expected to hear the hissing of the pneumatics.

Tom was watching the horizon. Aremu turned and looked at him, his profile limned by the light, the crookedness to his nose and the heaviness of his brow, and wondered things he had no right to ask, let alone to know.

“Yes,” Aremu turned back to the heavy mass of distant clouds shifting over the Tincta Basta. A good wind for coming to the Rose; there were a handful of scattered airships battling it to leave, lingering too long in the distant night sky. He watched one find the line of the wind and ride it up, up, up, and he grinned again, easy.

“The clouds toss it between themselves,” Aremu said, low and soft, and he thought of lying tangled in the Eqe Aqawe’s chainmail, watching a storm brush past them. “Close enough, and all the hairs on your body stand on edge with the feeling. It leaves a crisp, clean smell in the air.”

Most storms, of course, he spent in the engine room. Occasionally he had had the luxury to go outside, when it was only cloud lightning and not the threatening brush of a storm, when there was no particular reason to fear its lashing out, when they knew the way and could hold to it.

“Once,” Aremu had not realized he was speaking aloud until he had already begun. His hands gripped then rested flat on the railing, and he kept going. “Once, I was outside when lightning caught the ship,” there was something in his voice, reverence and fear. He thought it must have been like seeing the gods. “It caught the chainmail, and raced across it, blazing with white hot heat,” he shivered. “It was over in an instant, but it lingered against my eyelids for hours, whenever I closed them, as if it did not wish to let me go.”

Aremu cleared his throat, and felt a prickle of heat on the back of his neck, on his cheeks. He kept his gaze fixed on the distant horizon, the heavy mass of still clouds lingering there, and he kept himself fixed on the low wood of the railing, close enough to Tom to touch. He thought of lightning, and he felt the hairs on his arm prickle beneath his shirt and jacket.

Aremu could not bear the pressure of the cravat, anymore, and he lifted his hands to his throat and tugged it loose. The wind snatched at the fabric, but Aremu held it tight, bundled it up and tucked the little flash of silk into one pocket, and he sighed.

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Tom Cooke
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Location: Vienda, but also hell
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: dear shadow, alive and well
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Sun Nov 10, 2019 2:45 pm

The Waterfront Old Rose Harbor
Evening on the 59th of Roalis, 2716
Tom was fair glad, gladder than maybe he should’ve been, when Aremu sat down beside him after all. The gentle creak of the boards underneath them made him grateful in a way he couldn’t half explain, and was too tired to try. He had better sense than to turn and look, but he saw the yellow-limned shape of him there in the corner of his eye, and he felt something that was like relief and apprehension all at once. Want and not-knowing, a dull ache in his chest told him. Being in a fog, and realizing you’re not alone, and not knowing who it is you’re with.

He squinted, straining his eyes against the dark to watch a vague little shape, way off; it drifted, then went up, like it’d been sucked right up by the moonlight that trickled through the clouds. It looked like a bird. His lip twitched, not quite a smile.

Of a sudden, in that pause, he felt an awful tug in his chest, a twisting and a tearing. He felt the pull of the lapping water below and the far horizon, and the chill in the night air; he didn’t know what was wrong with him, but the feeling was like a pressure right underneath his heart, and he had to shut his eyes. He didn’t think Aremu noticed – he hoped he wouldn’t – the heat behind his eyes; he didn’t think he showed, in the half-light, just how close he was to weeping. The fingers of his hand tightened a little around the neck of the bottle, and he just managed to push down the lump in his throat when Aremu’s voice pulled him back out of the water.

He hadn’t wanted to ask, not outright, but he’d hoped dearly that the engineer would tell him a little something of lightning aboard an airship. Tom filled up with a deep sigh, opening his eyes, and he took another long swig of Low Tide. The words drifted out between them, louder and softer as the wind picked up and lulled. Tom found himself hanging onto every one of them.

The clouds toss it between themselves – he’d never’ve put it that way, he thought absently, appreciatively. His eyes flicked from the hill of one cloud to the curl of another; he pictured it. He thought he could feel it, too, the hairs standing up. When he put the bottle back down between them, his forearm just brushed the sleeve of Aremu’s jacket.

You’d think –

Hell, it didn’t make any sense; you’d think, he thought, feeling oddly giddy and not knowing why, you’d think – if kov like these were dangerous, you’d think you could feel something off them like lightning, like the tension in the air before the strike of a bolt, like the singing before magic. Maybe you did, just before the diablerie went off. You’d think you’d feel something, Tom thought, something to tell you they were dangerous.

Tom felt some kind of danger, felt some kind of fear, but it wasn’t that kind. His skin prickled underneath the thin cotton of his sleeve.

He started speaking again, and his voice’d taken on a strange, low tone, like the shuddering of a bell to announce a service. Tom still didn’t dare look, scared he’d disappear like a mirage or a dream, or slip off like a cat that’d decided it’d had enough. But his breath caught in his throat, once, audibly; he took a deep, shuddering breath, and his brow furrowed as he stared at the distant clouds.

It was a long moment before he replied. Movement caught his eye, and he glanced over, finally, to watch Aremu taking off his cravat and tucking the fluttering thing in his pocket. “Maybe it didn’t,” he said softly, with an intent, oddly somber look. “Want t’ let you go. I reckon things’re like that. Lightnin’, or the flash of steel, or – they leave a bit of theirselves wi’ you, an’ like that, they hold you. Scars an’ the like, even, they hold you.”

Tom blinked, then, like he hadn’t expected the words to come out of his mouth. He glanced down and aside; a soft smile broke out on his face again, but it was even crookeder than his last. Instead of looking out toward the horizon, he looked down, a little closer, where the moonlight picked out a faint web of foam on the dark water, like scales on a turtle’s shell.

He felt more than a little silly. He had the urge to apologize, but he didn’t think it’d do much; he’d just be excusing himself. And he wanted to say something else, maybe, ask about – Uzoji, or Collingwood, or even Niccolette, or the airship, or – but none of it felt right, not for Aremu, and not for him, neither. He could’ve given Aremu an out, made himself disagreeable without being impolite; he still had the cravat up his sleeve.

Selfishly, he didn’t want to play the mung, coarse natt to make him go away; selfishly, he didn’t want him to go away at all, but he didn't think he was making himself attractive company, neither. Maybe he just wasn’t such good company. He didn’t know.
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Aremu Ediwo
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Sun Nov 10, 2019 4:53 pm

Evening, 59th Roalis, 2716
The Waterfront
Aremu had felt it as much as heard it when Tom’s breath caught next to him, and he was not sure why, but he – he had not stopped. He wondered, in the silence that fell between them, whether he should have; he did not know if he had touched some cut he was unaware of, groping unseeingly in the dark.

But Tom began to speak again, and Aremu was conscious of Tom watching him undo the cravat; he glanced over, and caught something intense on the man’s face, serious and knowing. There was silence between them again, as Aremu’s hands found their way to his lap, resting lightly on his own thighs.

Scars and the like, Tom said, and Aremu glanced down at his wrists - at the glittering cuff-links Uzoji had given him, silver polished smooth, the neat cuff that had been pinned and sewn to the length of his wrist, and past that the rounded edges of a scar. He must once have brushed something hot, although he could not remember which frantic battle against time and gravity it had been. It must have hurt, but he could not remember that either, only the soaring, singing joy of success, when the engine woke to life beneath his hands – choked, perhaps, but caught and began to turn, powerful, with a thrill like lightning all of its own.

Aremu turned his hands over in the light and studied them, close and careful, and he felt nothing but pride for the burns and marks and calluses, for the hard-earned way he had learned to wield them. He thought of Uzoji’s right hand, the scarring across his palm. He had not seen Niccolette’s scar, but he knew. Marked, the both of them, but not unwelcomely. He wondered what Collingwood thought of his hand now, and he remembered the careful, deliberate way he had held his knife, stiff but not ungraceful.

And then his gaze lowered to Tom’s hands. Strong, he thought immediately, but it would be a deliberately exerted strength. Even in the dim light he could see the scuffing on his knuckles, small marks where fingers and men must have broken. Aremu wondered what it would feel like to touch them, and the thrill that ran through him was as visceral as if he had done it. He swallowed slightly, feeling the pressure of the collar against his throat.

Aremu found the little button that held the collar in place, and undid it, and couldn’t help a noise that was almost a groan of relief as it came off. He traced his fingers over the line it had left behind on his throat, slowly, and he set the starched fabric into another pocket, not remotely worried about his pockets bulging. It was like learning to breathe again.

“In ways you see and in ways you don’t,” Aremu agreed, and he looked back up at Tom’s face - lingered for a moment on the scars there, the one that carved through his lips, and he smiled. He had thought it would be a grin, and it was not - it was something more tender and not only soft, something he wasn’t entirely sure whether to name. He lowered his fingers from his throat, and found the wood of the bench again, safe and a little slimy and comforting.

His gaze pulled away, too, back to the water below, tracing along it; there were swelling clouds puffed up on their own importance, in the distance, but without light they left no mark on the great darkness of the Tincta Basta, and there was no telling the sea from the sky, Hulali’s world from the one above. Niccolette had claimed the sky for Hurte more than once, deliberately and willfully, and always with an edge of challenge. Aremu thought it should belong to Vespe, but he had not minded enough to argue the point.

It was easier to take his mind away, and he – he did not want to. Aremu brought himself back to the present, to the warmth of Tom’s presence, the remembered moment when the other man had brushed his arm. Unintentional, he thought, it must have been, and he wondered if he should ease away, just a little, to give Tom more space. Perhaps he hadn’t thought – when he asked Aremu to sit –

But he had asked, Aremu told himself, with a fiercely selfish swell of something that rose up in his chest and straightened his back, and he lost the desire to flee. He had asked, and he hadn't seemed sorry that Aremu had joined him.

“Do you think…” Aremu hesitated, wanting to find the right words, and then he went on ahead all the same, “do you think scars just remind us?” He looked back down at the hand that rested between him and Tom again, but it was not himself he saw. “Or do they make it easier to… do they make it tangible, that holding, and so less painful, and easier to accept as a part of yourself,” he glanced over and up at Tom, again, wondering if he’d made any kind of sense at all. He managed, at least, to stop himself there, and though he smiled again, it was more than a little self-conscious.

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Tom Cooke
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: dear shadow, alive and well
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Sun Nov 10, 2019 8:50 pm

The Waterfront Old Rose Harbor
Evening on the 59th of Roalis, 2716
TIn the corner of his eye, he saw Aremu turning his hands over, and he saw the pale light of the streetlamp flicker over them, and – feeling strange; feeling like he was doing something he shouldn’t’ve – he glanced down and to the side, subtle-like, to look at those hands himself. The first thing he caught was the glint of cuff-links, and he almost looked away abruptly, but he didn’t.

The hands themselves he recognized, remembered. The distant streetlamp flickered over the backs, and it picked out his long, thin fingers – thin, but strong; Tom thought of the way he’d used them to climb the pipework, thought of them holding a wrench, or searching the metal skin of that chamber in the dark passageway for hairline cracks. The yellow light glanced over his knuckles, and then he turned his hands over, and the light shifted to wash over his palms.

Tom glanced away, casual, and glanced back. He noticed, before he looked away again, the raw, discolored scuff of a burn, and wondered how long ago he’d got it. All those little scars in all those places. Hands for fine work; hands for dangerous work. Hands that didn’t jerk away from a burn, or from heavy machinery.

Because he was watching Aremu, he caught the movement of the kov’s eyes as they traced his own hands. A current went through him, a jolt like static. He felt a stab of something he couldn’t explain; when it sank and settled in him, he knew to name it shame. The hand that wasn’t on the liquor, the hand in his lap, twitched; he found his eyes wandering toward it, almost hesitant, like he expected to see something that’d scare him.

It lay there in his lap. In the low light, it was a bulky shape, with thick, blunt fingers. There was so much scarring on the backs of the knuckles, so many places where they’d been battered and busted even to the bone, that in this light, Tom thought they looked misshapen.

It was a hand that could hold a knife against – he swallowed tightly. Now, Aremu was undoing that starched collar; the movement drew his eyes. He saw Aremu run his fingers over his throat, and he tracked the subtle movements of the muscles underneath his fingertips, picked out in shadows. Relieved movements, like if –

Tom’s eyes traveled up to his face. And in ways you don’t, he said, and for a moment, bald surprise flickered over Tom’s face; his lips came open, just slightly. Aremu smiled at him, and it wasn’t another uncertain grin.

“Oes,” he murmured. He smiled back; he didn't know what kind of a smile it was, but he was afraid of how much it might've shown.

The back of his neck prickled, and he looked down. He was grateful for the thick tangle of black hair between him and Aremu, then. He felt ridiculous enough for it, like a lass hiding her blush behind her tresses. And he could still see his hand on the railing between them, and he didn’t like how easy it’d be to reach out and touch it.

He was still thinking about that look, muddy-headed and dazed, when Aremu continued. He felt that awful ache in his chest again. Tom didn’t half know what he was saying, or doing, or thinking – he hadn’t expected – but Aremu was turning his words over, taking them seriously. He could hear it in the pause, full-up with thought. Me, Tom thought, why’re you asking me? and without knowing why, he took his hand away from the neck of the bottle of Low Tide.

He thought about it for a long moment. Did it matter why he was asking? Wasn’t it plain enough? He wouldn’t disrespect him, or those careful words about scars and pain that rang so deeply inside him.

Raising his head, he found he could meet the passive’s self-conscious smile. He tilted his head to one side, smiling back. “Aye,” he replied. “I reckon –” He stretched out the fingers of his hand, feeling less ashamed, this time; he looked over the fresh scuffs, the older, silvery scars. Tangible, he thought; the unfamiliar word rang through his mind. “You belong to it, but some of it belongs to you. I reckon bein’ marked makes it easier to accept, in some ways, an’ harder, in others. Sometimes you got so many things holdin' you...”

The lapping of the waves, the creak of the boards, filled the space. He found himself shifting closer, lowering his voice. It was still friendly-like, nothing as'd look out of place with two kov, old friends, maybe, talking and drinking on the wharf; but his shoulder brushed Aremu's, just briefly.

“You ever feel like – like all of ’em, they’re like pieces of a picture, an’ you can’t see the whole thing?” His voice came out a little heavier than he’d meant it to, but he was still smiling wistfully. “Sometimes I think – some of these scars, they could be from one man, some from another. Hard to believe it's all a part of me.”
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Aremu Ediwo
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Sun Nov 10, 2019 9:46 pm

Evening, 59th Roalis, 2716
The Waterfront
Tom stretched his hand out, and Aremu followed his gaze down to it, taking it in with the other man. He spoke of ownership, and the two way ties that bound, and Aremu found that the strange unfamiliarity of Tom’s accent did not matter as much as he had thought it might. It was hard for him, often enough, the rougher Tek-heavy dialogue of the Rose – different, even, than Tek as it was spoken in Thul Ka. But he was scarcely conscious of any other sound, even the faint creak of old wood and the distant noise of passer-byers seemed to fade into the background, and he found that if he listened, it was easy.

They were both looking at Tom’s hand, then, and Aremu could only just see the edges of his fingers beneath, half-distant. Small, by comparison, but not weak, not in the ways that counted. The clothing was his, in the sense that he had bought it – not for this dinner, or not just for this dinner, but for the dinners like it, because sometimes Uzoji wanted him there, even in Anaxas. He knew, of course, imbala who wore such clothing, spice traders mostly that they had met in the Islands, men with hands as suited for academia as any galdori.

Aremu was not one of them, if ever he had been. It seemed odd to him to pretend, to collar his neck and hide himself beneath a jacket he could never wear for the work he loved. It was easy for Niccolette and Uzoji, he thought, to go back and forth. It was not easy for him – it never had been – and he was not sure why, whether it might have been if – if. He was suddenly conscious, in a way he had avoided until now, of how he must look to Tom – was it ridiculous, to see him like this? Niccolette had told him he looked handsome, but Aremu – he had not –

He looked down at his hand again, and Tom leaned close enough to brush Aremu’s shoulder with his, and a shiver went through the Mugrobi. He knew better; he knew better. But it rippled through him, and his hand tightened on the bench, and he looked back up at Tom, and listened again.

"The scars I don’t mind,” Aremu said, softly, and he was aware that his gaze was lingering on Tom’s face again. “But I believe I know what you mean. There’s a feeling of – of colliding inside oneself, that is…” he was quiet, then, and although he was still turned towards Tom, he looked down, a little, down and away, heavy lashes resting against the dark skin of his cheeks.

To see inside men and yet to kill them – he wondered, sometimes, what he had made himself into. Engines were one thing, but it was not only tools that his hands held, and not always engines that they worked upon. He did it freely and willingly, and he had made choices, again and again, at every stage, and he knew they were what had led him here. And yet sometimes he woke and wondered if he would ever stop seeing the blood –

Was it the lack in him that made it possible? Or was it the lack that made it hard?

Aremu’s eyes had fluttered shut, but he opened them again, and swallowed, more easily with the collar gone. He turned his attention to his cuff-links, undoing them one by one, and rolled his sleeves up one at a time, even though it was impossible to do it without brushing his arm gently against Tom’s, the white shirt beneath wrapping around the jacket, oddly bright against his skin. The full shape of the scar was visible that way, up his wrist and onto his bare forearm, a memory of the engine’s heat, and he preferred it to the fine, flawlessly-sewn line of the jacket. And alongside it, thin lines left over from more than one knife fight; he turned his forearm slowly, letting the largest catch the light, a dark line against skin that was darker still.

“It’s…” Aremu began again, trying to put words to his scattered thoughts. There had been a brandy, before the dinner, and the wine which he had not finished, and he did not often drink. "I wonder if anyone can see all of themselves,” he said, softly. “If you can ever see past whatever it is that divides you, that – “ his breath caught and shuddered and he smoothed it out, “keeps you from being whole,” he was coming dangerously close to it, he thought, and he knew it would be a mistake. He veered back away, then, because – because he did not know how Tom would react, and he would have been sorry to ruin this moment.

“Have you ever seen yourself in another’s eyes, and wondered how much of you they saw?” Aremu asked, although he thought he knew the answer; he looked up at Tom again, and smiled a little crookedly, well-aware of the contrasts within the man – the soft, sensitive words and the strong, scuffled hands. He didn’t look away this time, but kept going, and when he shifted his hands a little on his lap, his forearm caught against Tom’s and he – let it stay there, for a moment so short it could have been no time at all, with only a thin layer of cotton between them, before his hand finished its motion and settled back between them.

It was Niccolette’s trick, Aremu thought, to distract from one painful subject with another, more provocative one, and he wondered if he had learned it from her.

"Sometimes it’s…” Aremu exhaled, and he didn't look away, and his lips twisted a little more, faintly, in something that edged closer to a genuine smile. “Sometimes it makes a mirror of you. Sometimes it’s easier to be what’s reflected, or so it's seemed to me, at least for a little while.”

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Tom Cooke
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Mon Nov 11, 2019 1:52 pm

The Waterfront Old Rose Harbor
Evening on the 59th of Roalis, 2716
This time, Tom watched him undo his cuff links without much of an attempt to disguise his interest. He was thinking, watching them glint and flash in his hands, and then disappear into another overfull pocket — how strange this was, strange and strangely comfortable, all at once. Strange for how comfortable he was getting. He kept thinking he’d blink and wake up from the dream, or look up and realize he was sitting and drinking alone on the wharf, only to catch sight of Aremu again. Rolling up the sleeves of his shirt and jacket, now, with precise movements of those long, callused fingers. Tom felt terribly grateful for all of it, suddenly.

He didn’t mind the scars, he said. Tom’s eyes wandered down to his exposed forearm, tracing the long line of a tsuter burn scar down to his wrist. He didn’t see them at first, but then Aremu shifted, and they caught the light: smaller, thinner lines, etched silvery against his dark skin, in shorter, sharper shapes Tom thought he knew well enough.

He’d never thought of Aremu in a fight, not like that; with a gun, oes, but not with sharps. It opened some door in his head. He reckoned every man aboard a ship like Uzoji’s had to be ready for a fight, but now he wondered how old some of those scars were — he wondered about a time before, wondered what life’d taught him to use a knife, wondered at all the things he didn’t know about what it was like for a Mugrobi — scrap.

That word, that’d been natural just a half hour ago, felt wrong. Wrong like vreska. Aremu’s arm brushed his again, solid and real as a natt’s, and Tom felt the strange urge to scrub the word out of his head, to clean himself of having thought it. Why should it feel wrong? Tom didn’t know. It felt wrong, too, the burning curiosity. Aremu went on, and Tom found he couldn’t look back at him.

Whatever it is that divides you. He was aware, again, sharply aware.

Tom was drunk, but he was used to the drifting, thick way of his thoughts; sometimes, he thought he navigated the world outside his head better when it was like this. He knew, anyway, that he wasn’t a mung drunk, not like some. So when Aremu tilted just a pina to speak of reflections, and when he felt the wonderfully purposeful, lingering brush of his forearm — he felt it like the changing of the wind, and something in his eyes sharpened. Maybe it was the drink made him stubborn, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to lean in the direction of the wind, not tonight, though the prickle of all the hairs up and down his forearm where Aremu’d touched made it damned tempting.

Instead, he thought, pausing to look out over the water. Not too long; even drunk, he knew that. Especially drunk. He didn’t think Aremu’d wanted him to notice how he’d danced away from that word, whole.

So he looked at Aremu, then, and offered him a wry grin, a flash of his crooked-sharp teeth. “But there’s different reflections, ain’t there?” Better, he thought, follow his lead, and see where it took them. “Some nights, it’s good enough t’ see the man that’s in the eyes of some poor flooder’s got the misfortune of pickin’ a fight wi’ me, or bein’ in my general vicinity,” and he pronounced the word with careful flourish, and quirked a heavy eyebrow, “when I want to spill sap. When I want to be a simple, bloody man. Some nights, I want to be a different man, so I find — different eyes to get reflected in.”

There was a weight to those words, and it glittered in his eyes. But steady enough, the grin faded, and the only thing it left behind was a bitter, sad ghost of a smile; studying Aremu’s face, he couldn’t hide it. “Bein’ honest,” he said softly, “I ain’t so sure I’d want to see all of me. I reckon our souls’d be like strangers to us.”

He’d almost brought it back round, without meaning to; he felt a rush of regret, wondering if he’d stepped somehow where he’d no right to go. He barely knew what he was doing ‘til he did it, but he wanted to show him — he didn’t know what; he felt, again, like he was looking at a map without any of the landmarks labeled — and he laid a big hand on Aremu’s shoulder, friendly-like as ever, but fair gentle. He clasped it, feeling the expensive fabric of his jacket, the solid man underneath.
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Aremu Ediwo
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Mon Nov 11, 2019 2:48 pm

Evening, 59th Roalis, 2716
The Waterfront
Whether Tom saw through him or not, he followed Aremu’s lead. Aremu felt as if the starlight could shine straight through him, like the night sky, but Tom took up the thread of conversation he had offered and wove it into fuller cloth.

Aremu nodded, because he had heard something of Tom’s ease at spilling sap. And he nodded again, appreciating Tom’s thoughtfulness, the point he made about choosing where to be reflected. He was looking at Tom when the man grinned, knowingly, and Aremu grinned too, and for a moment he was simply glad.

And then, he felt it: an almost childish sense of relief. As if, Aremu thought uneasily, he had gotten away with something; not a lie, because he had not lied as a boy, but some casual misbehavior. As if he had snuck a flatbread from the kitchen, or crept in mud-splattered and managed to change before he was caught. It was a startlingly unpleasant way to feel as a grown man.

Tom’s smile faded, and Aremu did not know which of them was reflecting the other. He was briefly grateful for the other man’s gentle redirecting of the conversation backwards, very briefly, because -

Our souls, Tom said, easy and casual. Aremu held still, very still, because he did not wish to go to pieces, but he thought it was already too late. His eyes flickered shut, again, and he felt breathless, as if a fist had been driven into his stomach, squeezed all the air out of his lungs and left him with nothing to hold.

He felt the heavy weight of Tom’s hand on his shoulder. Aremu struggled to catch his breath, but he leaned into that hand, slowly, instead of away. He brought his own hands up to cover his face, and held, just a little while. It felt like a long time, but he didn’t think it was, not really, before he could take a deep breath, and then another. He let himself feel the faint spray of the water off the bay, smell the night air with the tang of damp wood, and the warmth of Tom’s hand through the shirt and jacket.

I don’t have a soul, Aremu could not say. Anaxi did not distinguish, he reminded himself; he could not have said how Tom meant it. Was he speaking of the thing inside himself which would return to the cycle, in time, as they all must? Or the part of him where his honor lay, himself as a man? Aremu knew he could not even explain the difference, or ask the careful, thoughtful man next to him how he had meant it. It left him only more ashamed of his reaction, because there was no way to make Tom understand it.

“I don’t...” Aremu tried the words, slowly, lowering his hands back to his legs. He needed something to hold, still, and so he wrapped his fists in the delicate fabric of his trousers, and clenched, not caring anymore about the creases that had been so painstakingly ironed in.

“I don’t think you need to be afraid,” the imbala said, softly, honestly, and he knew he had lost the knack of keeping it from being too personal. His eyes were open now, but he did not look at Tom, fixed instead on some distant point. He could not be unaware of the contact between them, the closeness - Tom’s tangible presence beside him, and the imprint he was leaving behind.

Not one sign, Aremu thought; Tom had not given him one sign of fear or even reluctance. He had invited Aremu to sit, and he had brushed against him, more than once, and never flinched at Aremu’s tentative and not-so-tentative reciprocation. He had set his hand on Aremu’s shoulder, and steadied him. Aremu shuddered.

“I’m not -“ Aremu’s breath caught in his throat, and he closed his eyes, and then he opened them deliberately, and turned to look up at the other man. He faced the unspoken words, squarely, and he did not lie. “I’m not - I wouldn’t hurt you, if I...” He took a deep breath, and let it out on a shaky exhale.

“I’m sorry,” Aremu eased away then, as if the weight of what he had put between them had a physical presence. He rose and found his balance on the narrow strip of dock between the railing and the sea, and he turned away from Tom long enough to brush the beginnings of tears from his eyes, as unseen as possible. He took a few careful steps, and he did not need to look to know when he was five feet away.

Aremu held there, and he knew he was waiting. He caught his breath and his balance, and he thought it would be best if the other man let him go. He could not have said what he wanted; all sorts of longings seemed to be tangled up in his chest. He was conscious of being poor company, and more than a little sorry for it - sorry, not for the first time and certainly not for the last, that he had disturbed Tom.

Aremu crossed his arms over himself, the rolled up sleeves too stiff in the elbow to make it comfortable. It was cold, without Tom’s closeness, the wind whistling over and through him, stroking his bare neck like a knife, and he was transparent in the dark.

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Tom Cooke
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: dear shadow, alive and well
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Mon Nov 11, 2019 8:49 pm

The Waterfront Old Rose Harbor
Evening on the 59th of Roalis, 2716
When Aremu put his hands to his face, Tom knew he’d been right; he knew he’d struck at something with his words, only he didn’t know what, and he felt oddly helpless. He’d shut his eyes, Tom thought, like a man expecting the blow of an ax. Tom wondered if he shouldn't have touched him, should've left alone, but then the other man leaned into his hand. He glanced round behind them, at the scattered dark shapes walking the slick wharf, vague under distant street lamps. Squeezing Aremu’s shoulder, he thought how he’d’ve given the moon to wrap an arm around him.

He felt his breath still underneath his hand, and Tom’s did, too. He felt like they’d both turned to stone. Then, he felt his shoulder shift with the first deep breaths; like a mirror, oes, he found he could draw in a steady one of his own. Then the passive put his hands in his lap.

It was hard to read his face, staring somewhere far off. He looked down at his lap, wondering if he’d rather not be looked at; he saw Aremu twisting the benny fabric of his trousers, and he blinked. When one of them got scared or upset, the thought crawled into his head, unbidden, they said that was when the —

Tom smiled softly, a little confused — nervous — when Aremu told him he didn’t think he had to be afraid. Tom hadn’t said he was afraid; he hadn’t used that word. Maybe, Tom thought, he was telling him he shouldn’t be afraid to see his soul, or some such. To go along with how they’d been talking.

He knew better than that, by the heaviness in Aremu’s eyes when he finally looked up at him. He took it out, what they both knew and weren’t saying, and put it in the space between them.

Wouldn’t hurt him, if — Tom frowned, looking down at his own lap. He hadn’t thought he’d been that obvious; feeling a burning in his cheeks, he tried to think what he’d said or done that’d made it so clear, all the things he’d been wondering about —

Then Aremu turned away from him, hiding his face again, and started walking along outside the railing like it was the broadest street in King’s Court. Tom’s empty hand just hung in the air, still glowing, it felt like, with the ghost of that touch.

He started to stand up, unthinking. He felt the wood creak and then pop underneath his boots; the shifting of the water seemed to make the sky shift, too, like it was all the same body, sea and clouds. With a muttered, “Shit,” he grabbed the railing again and held on. The wind picked up, tangling his hair in his face. He pushed a few damp, salty locks back out of his eyes with his free hand, and watched as Aremu stopped maybe a handful of feet away from him.

Tom stayed where he was, poised at an awkward angle. Aremu had moved the length of that narrow strip like a cat on the top of a narrow fence, and Tom, for all he knew himself to be graceful, just didn’t fit. He didn’t care much for heights, neither. He didn’t know why he’d tried to follow Aremu this way, but he put it down to his silly drunk head; he sank back down to sit on the railing a little dejectedly.

He reckoned Aremu’d rather deal with it, whatever it was, in peace, and he couldn’t blame him. He reckoned they’d both been dealing with their chroveshit in peace before that. And he half turned, and started again to reach for the Low Tide, and then stopped.

He looked up at Aremu. Kov had his arms crossed, and Tom thought — he felt a stab of pain, again right in that place underneath his heart, like the welling-up of anguish that had no place to go. Tom thought he looked cold. There was a chill to the breeze, and the spray off the bay was clammy, and he remembered how he’d leaned into his hand.

“Aremu.” He didn’t stand up, and he looked down; his hands curled into fists in his lap. He spoke slow and purposeful. “I’m fair grateful to you, for comin’ an’ sittin’ wi’ me. You ain’t got to stay, but I – wanted to know you better, is all. I trust you, if you say there ain’t nothin’ to worry about. I jus’ want to know you better.”
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