After Syen vomits into the chamber pot. After she rinses her mouth and spits the foulness into the further foulness of the porcelain bowl (and scrapes its tumbled lid out from under the cabinet by the wall). After she crawls, shivering, back into the warm nest of her bed, her hand cupping her belly while determinedly not thinking of the dividing cells there as an infant, she curls up on her side, facing Alabaster and Innon.
They're spooned toward her now, with 'Baster tucked into the hollow of Innon's giant frame, the opposite of their positions last night, when she'd held 'Baster and Innon looked on. Had Alabaster really wept all night? She studies his sleeping face in the dim morning light, notes the deep lines etched into his forehead and cheeks. There are a few strands of white in his springy black hair and dry white tear streaks on his blue-black skin. He has worry lines, not laugh lines; Fulcrum orogenes don't have the sorts of lives that carve joy into people's faces, right out where anyone can see it.
Not like Innon. His charisma is shuttered in sleep, but his warm brown face is a map of laughter and piracy, of amusement, exuberance, and care.
(Of course Alabaster had wanted him. Probably on first sight.
Of course Syen wants him, despite the unnerving bright intensity of his regard.)
She dozes for a while, on and off, and eventually convinces her stomach to settle. 'Baster is sleeping the sleep of the truly wrung-out. Innon—enormous, beautiful—was fast asleep, too, but now he's blinking at her.
His smile is happy—contagiously so—as he registers 'Baster in his arms and Syen looking on, that hours later and despite a flood of tears, they're all still in the same bed. It's exactly what he had wanted, and she's glad, tentatively, that this seems like good fortune to him. Then Innon sniffs and smells the lingering sick in the air. He jerks his chin and mouths, "Are you all right?"
She nods, relieved to have proof at last that he can be quiet when he has reason to be. They lie there, not talking, and Innon reaches over 'Baster to take her hand. It's warm and rough from hard work, and the look in his eyes...he's flirting again, without even saying a word.
Her stomach's fluttering, which reminds her she needs to find out if pregnant women get an extra comm share here, or if there's a tea or a secret stash of bland mash set aside for people in need. Meov is crawling with children; she should probably ask who the midwife is.
'Baster shifts in Innon's arms and Innon kisses his temple. "Sleep," Alabaster mumbles. "Too early."
"Breakfast," Syen answers, quiet but firm, and rises. She's enjoying the company but, really, she's up for the day. She'd like to settle their new circumstances with some food in hand.
'Baster grunts, eyes still closed, and draws the covers up to his chin.
"I will be bringing something back for you," Innon rumbles in heavily accented Sanze-mat, and slips out of bed, which is when Syen discovers Innon is as ridiculous in private as he is in public: he actually tucks 'Baster in, as if he were a child.
Syenite watches, speechless, as she gets dressed, because who tucks in a grown man? Innon's known them all of three days! She's almost outraged, and she doesn't know why. It isn't about the sex—anyone can copulate—but this gentleness between strangers?
She wonders, briefly, what happened while she was asleep. Then she quells that thought to consider something else entirely: they're in Meov now. They're in a comm of mostly equals, not a rigidly structured prison-academy that exists to contain-control-constrain a slave race. What if what Innon's doing is normal here?
Could that even be possible?
Could that be what he meant when he said the Clalsu crew called him a fool to pursue her? Or was his "you" meant to include both of them instead of only her? Kneejerk, she'd assumed they were saying a broken-down Midlatter four-ringer wasn't good enough for their beloved captain, but, of course, how could they know anything about her? What if they were only teasing Innon for being the sort of romantic idiot pop lorists tell stories about?
In the open cavern with the communal cookfire, Syenite and Innon each take a bowl of seafood soup and a big piece of cassava flatbread and sit in as secluded a niche as they can find—not for fear of being overheard: Syen hasn't yet mastered more than a handful of words in Eturpic and not enough of the people around them speak Sanze-mat for concern. Rather, she's staking a claim on Innon's time so she can figure out what they're doing. Not that he's currently being swarmed by his people. She realizes in minutes that most of the others are speeding through breakfast. Innon translates the word she keeps hearing: "the tide."
"Do you need to go?" she asks.
He chuckles and shakes his head. "No, the Clalsu is a raider, not a fishing boat," which makes her feel stupid for a moment, except his smile is kind. He doesn't care that she's not a Coaster, or at least he doesn't seem to be holding ignorance of the sea against her.
They eat for a while. Syen's stomach accepts the soup despite the spice; the flatbread helps. (No, Earth burn it, it is a baby who accepts the food. A probably rogga baby she never wanted but somehow agreed to produce. A rogga baby who may or may not be the rent she and 'Baster are paying to stay in Meov.) Meanwhile, Innon keeps glancing at her like he's trying to find the right words to ask her something. It's so unlike what she's seen of him so far, she snaps, "Just rusting say it," which at least makes him laugh.
At first. But it quiets into a rueful smile after a moment.
She takes a breath and exhales slowly. Innon's changed his mind about her, she knows it. "Last night?" she prompts.
"Last night," he agrees, nodding, and then says, "was difficult for him. You slept much more than we did."
"You—" she says, but he holds up a hand.
"I told you that it was obvious you are stronger than he, but Alabaster…" he trails off. "He told me only a little of what he has survived. I think he did not want to frighten me."
Syen nods. "That seems reasonable. He likes you."
Innon takes her hand. She's a big woman, but his hand makes hers look small. "Help me understand, Syenite. You want me as much as he does, he told me, but then he said you agreed to step away?"
She shrugs, embarrassed. "I can let him have you. He and I aren't…" She takes her hand back and asks, "Did he tell you that we've only known each other for a couple of months?"
Innon shakes his head.
"He's my—he was my assigned mentor at the Fulcrum, but now that we're here?" She shrugs again. "I don't know what we are."
"Good friends, I think." She wonders if Innon smiles at everyone like this. He's irresistible.
"Better than he deserves," she says.
"Hmm. But you and he are plainly something," Innon says, puzzled. "The way you and he move...and you bicker like you have years together, not months." She watches him chew his lip, pondering the way she bickers, apparently.
But she can't imagine why he believes they care about each other like real lovers do, or at least should. Unless it's a matter of personal space? Sharing a sleeping bag or bed for two months will do that, even without the sex. She scowls down at her empty bowl. "Lovers love each other," Syen says quietly. "'Baster and I don't. We're something else."
Innon covers her hand again and she pulls it out of his grip. There is no comfort for this.
"Everyone knows the Fulcrum trains roggas." She forces herself to say the vulgarity aloud, now that she understands. "But people don't know it's also a breeding program—they don’t want people to know they’re making more roggas, stronger roggas. Alabaster did offer to refuse me," she adds, "but I told him not to; we both knew they would only have sent me to someone else." She doesn't say that 'Baster's mentorship was supposed to have been good for her career, recognition of Syenite's potential to move up the ranks. Or that his refusal would have been held against her, not him. Nothing the Fulcrum taught her to believe matters anymore. None of it.
"That is—" Innon's shaking his mane of braids in horrified denial. His huge fists are clenched on the table. "I do not know a word for how terrible that is."
She gives a resigned sigh; there's so much Innon doesn't know and she hopes he never will. After a long moment, she gestures at the cavern around them. "And now, here we are."
He nods slowly, searching her face for...what? She can't begin to guess. "Here we are."
She doesn't know what else to say. Alabaster will never forgive her if she's just shattered his chances with Innon, but Innon is Meov's second. Syen's pretty sure he's the sort who prefers to know how things stand.
"Does knowing where we come from change anything for you?" she asks. "With us?"
His eyes go wide. "No! I want you and I want Alabaster. That part is simple. You and he do not want each other, I understand now; but you do both want me, yes?"
Syen blushes so hard it probably shows, even on her middling brown face, and nods. And doesn't examine the relief she's feeling at not having to contort her way through this man's emotions to get what she wants, because she does want, despite how complicated this is.
Then she remembers 'Baster's face last night, before she went to get Innon for him. So much yearning. And now that 'Baster's had Innon, she doubts whether he can stand to share. "I do, yeah, but I did tell him I was okay with backing off."
Innon flicks this away like a crumb from the table. "But that would not be fair either to you or me! He has much grief he must put to rest, anyone can see, but that does not allow him to tell us what we can or cannot have. You are not in the Fulcrum anymore. He cannot order you." Innon's swelling in size as he speaks, all six-and-a-half feet of him.
And it's true, Innon's right. 'Baster can throw a sulking, brooding fit at Syen all he wants, but he can't put limits on this man. Innon won't accept it.
It occurs to her, maybe belatedly, now that she and 'Baster are away—possibly even free—maybe it's time she take a fresh look at her options? Her actual options, not what the Fulcrum trained her to believe she could have.
"To be clear, you want us to share you?" she asks. "Both of us equally?"
"Yes!" Innon booms with a fierce, hopeful laugh that makes her smile despite what she thinks (knows) Alabaster will say when she and Innon return to her little house.
She stands up. "Fine. Let's take him his rusting breakfast and—" she pauses, considers 'Baster under their blanket, equally naked in his power and his fragility, and amends, "—and then you can talk him into it."
He hums, sounding unconcerned. He gathers their dishes and nods her toward the enormous cook pot warming over the banked coals of the fire.
Syen fills a bowl. It's twice what 'Baster will normally eat, but maybe she can get Innon to help. She has a feeling 'Baster will do a lot for Innon's approval. More than he'll do for her, anyway.
Innon's chatting amiably with a pair of old women who seem to be in charge of collecting used dishes for washing. She thinks a couple of laughing, leering comments are aimed her way, and that's definitely an obscene gesture, yes. Syen's blushing furiously again and on the verge of storming back to her house when Innon bounds over, plants a kiss on her locks, which, rust, she still needs to redo, and offers to take the bowl.
"Will he eat so much?" he asks, as if the whole comm isn't watching, imagining what the two of them will look like in bed. He's noticed Alabaster's finicky appetite, then.
"He's forgotten how to feel hunger," she answers. "He only eats when I put food in front of him. He'll probably eat more if we both do it."
Innon nods thoughtfully. "Then I will help."
They fall quiet as they set off, at first because she isn't sure what to say, and then because she has a sudden memory of the full, Earth-jerking force of 'Baster's grief at the node station. He's lost so much...and all he wants right now is Innon.
"He won't be okay with me sharing you," she warns, as they wind their way through the maze of interconnected caverns.
Innon smiles down at her, a glimmer of something in his eyes. "I will be very convincing. You have not yet seen me try."
Syen swallows. If he doesn't think three days of deliberate, carefully aimed flirtation counts as trying? She realizes she can smell him, that her body is responding to him with a flare of heat between her legs and an almost painful twinge in her nipples. She wants to see him try. And she wants her rusting turn already.
She reaches for him then, pushing him against the wall. "Don't spill the soup," she says, and kisses him hard, with all the passion she had wanted from him last night, when he had given her gratitude instead. This time she gets passion back, enough that she briefly considers demanding he take her back to his bed, wherever it is he actually lives, she still doesn't know.
She pulls away finally to breathe, to say something, to—rust if she knows what, she can't think. His free hand is caressing her ass. The other is cradling the soup bowl, which is beginning to slosh over his fingers—that she wants inside her, preferably without the coating of soup. She begins to laugh. Possibly Innon's ridiculousness is contagious. "Later," she says, "you were going to take care of me, remember?"
"Later can be now," Innon says raggedly, and it's gratifying that she's had such an effect on him, too.
"Convince him to share, first," she says, hating herself for being so coldly rational when all she really wants right now is to be thoroughly, deliciously fucked. She adds, "He'll make my life hell if we do this against his wishes."
"Yes." Innon's tone is fervent, the glimmer in his eye somehow even more now than before she kissed him.
She rises up on tiptoe to kiss him once more, soft and lingering. She notices how perfectly their mouths fit together, how firm he is against her belly, how perilously close she is to pushing him to his knees right here on the path.
She wants, she wants so much; and she also wants not to be a rusting fool, so she makes herself step back, takes Innon's free hand, and squeezes hard. The only word she can manage is, "Good," but that's okay because it conveys everything she needs it to, on every level. Innon looks a little dazed but manages a nod. Then she tugs him along beside her, holding tight, and together they traverse the narrow cavern to her house.