Austro station has day and night shifts, and the Turundrlar has been here long enough to adapt to them. Perhaps too long.
"Sleep," I tell Ter’tlo, still hard at her task. Come the morning shift, we shall have EarthHub people here again, and will need all our wits at our disposal.
"Will you not, as well?" she asks. At my lack of response, she shuts down her work station and leaves without another word. The ship is silent now, engines still. I fancy I can hear Ter’tlo glide back to her quarters.
But I am wrong, for those are footsteps indeed, and not nearly soft enough to be striviirc-na.
"Jos-na," I say, when he opens the door. "Shouldn't you be sleeping?"
He raises an eyebrow at me, gives me a critical look. The hypocrisies of teaching die hard, don't they. "I was. But then Captain Azarcon decided to send you some love letters."
He doesn't speak with accustomed Jet scorn, with that EarthHub harshness that is audible to me even across the language barrier. The words sound too serious coming from his mouth, almost formal given his still-hesitant grip on Ki’hade.
I gesture, and he brings them to me. The edges of the paper quiver slightly. The air on the ship is still; the tremor comes from his hand.
I shouldn't ask. I can't help it. "Is it better, Jos? Did they find you a place?"
As I could not. I don't know what answer I'm hoping for. The one that tells me I am a failure of a teacher, or the one where my only student is lost, adrift.
He shrugs, unsteady. "Place is overrated. I did fine as bun’tla-na. Perhaps the mistake was to try and be something else."
I grasp his forearm. "There is always a place here for you, if you want it." S'yta-na.
He takes a long moment to nod and another to leave, an awkwardness in parting that has never left him.
I am told they have a saying on EarthHub. Waiting with my heart in my throat. It doesn't make sense to me. If I am waiting, my heart is still, or it is away. Perhaps that that is why I never found my place as a teacher.
Two days ago, my heart walked out the door. I have made my peace with losing it, I think, but I grieve still.
Another idiom: the heart leaping. It doesn't do that. It squirms in the chest like a caught living thing, though, and it does when I walk into Jos-na's old chamber to find him there.
At my entrance, he uncurls from sleeping to wakefulness, quick and wary. "Nikolas-dan."
"Jos-na." I gesture at his form, shirtless, covered in a mess of blankets. "May I come in?"
He nods, sitting up, legs crossed. "I can't sleep on the Macedon," he says, as though I demanded explanations.
"This is your room," I say. The expression on his face is quick and complicated, like a muttered word in a language I do not speak.
"Evan has a pet." His next movements I can read: pure annoyance. "Some filthy stray cat. Won't stay off my bed and I can't sleep."
"Is that allowed?"
"On the ship?" He snorts. "You try telling a bunch of Jet-marines what to do. Not from too close, though."
I tilt my head and move to shift the fabric of my clothes, letting it cling where the knife's sheaf shows. "I'm touched by your concern."
At that he grins, and I forget, pull lightly at his hair. "Is that also why you walk about all unkempt?" That kills his smile, and I am reminded. My vocation is killing, after all, and that is what I have made of myself.
But he doesn't withdraw. Jos looks on at me with solemn eyes. He takes my hand, and puts it on his naked chest, where I can feel his heart drumming through the hard cage of his ribs. "When we did this before," he says, in a calm voice that strong beat belies, "did you do that to tie me to you?"
There is no answer that isn't a little bit a lie, not any I dare give him. "Would it have worked?"
"No." He looks away, but moves into my touch. I join my other hand to touch him. My fingers lie across the curve of his ribs, his solar plexus showing between the heels of my palms, leaving a perfect unguarded spot that I do not kiss.
His tone is higher when he next speaks. I know it is an attempt at casualness. "Do they have cats on Aaian-na, Niko?"
"Doubtless." His skin moves under my fingers when he speaks. I can feel the air caught in his chest. "I haven't run across any of them myself."
"I suppose you've been busy," Jos allows. "It's no big loss anyway. They're dirty and they scratch."
"A mystery that your roommate likes them, then." I keep my own voice neutral. Jos doesn't always understand when I attempt levity. It used to be easier, but that died, as well.
"They purr. It's supposed to be pleasant." Jos makes a noise deep in his throat, reminiscent of a growl.
I remove my hands and step away.
He looks at me from under his lashes. "It's supposed to mean they like you. I'm just not very good at it."
I nod and leave, abrupt. Jos doesn't like my walking away, I know, but I have a right to my dislikes as well. I don't enjoy making mistakes, and talking to Jos feels like sparring against a novice, when one may never know where a blow might fall.
I don't know when he leaves. Jos is still on the ship's roster, admitted without question. But his room is empty in the morning.
He comes again in the afternoon, bearing some more letters from Azarcon and a holo cube.
"Here, I wanted you to hear what it really sounds like," Jos says, and thumps it to life, the cube sliding down the table from the excessive force.
I listen. It's obviously organic, somewhere between a snore and an engine's hum. Not inherently disquieting, but not peaceful, either. “People find this pleasant?” I say, doubting.
“It's coming from a soft fluffy creature.” He leans against the wall, arms crossed. “Maybe it's context. I could bring the animal next time, let you see for yourself.”
“Bringing alien fauna on board is discouraged.”
“You took me in.” This time, he doesn't linger.
The concept of pets is hardly foreign to me. All the books that my parents had were written on EarthHub, after all, where they keep other life forms beside themselves, owned and fenced in.
It is not so in Aaian-na. Some houses leave food and water out, for birds or uurao, to distract them from damaging well-kept gardens or to encourage them to sing on the sills. Some guilds have vas-baram, animal rest-cities, which are meant to teach by observation and example. The animals aren't trapped there. They are convinced, rather, to take shelter and to feed.
By the inija-na there was one such, where kiriki twisted their long, sinuous bodies through maze-arrayed tubes, snarling to show double rows of tiny, venomous teeth. It was my task, when I was very young, to clean their long silky fur from the tubes.
I touched a sleeping one, once. It did not bite me, but when I turned, the kii’redan was looking at me disapprovingly.
“Not all things are for you,” he said. Unvoiced, I heard his disgust. Earthlings.
The most important lessons are the ones we never understand.
For our next round of negotiations, I come to Azarcon. He rustles up Jos to translate. It's not strictly necessary, but my command of EarthHub standard is still imperfect and the pauses in the conversation give me time to consider. I very much appreciate the courtesy.
"I'll take all this into consideration," Azarcon says, and we shake hands. There is the briefest moment when I see him with his hand outstretched and I don't understand, can't parse the gesture for its social intent. But it passes, and I leave.
Azarcon says something to Jos as I make my way out, too quick and quiet for me to make out. Jos, of course, doesn't translate. I know it has nothing to do with me, in all probability.
My steps hasten a small bit. I still don't manage to pass Jos, who isn't even trying to make his retreat look like anything but an escape. He disappears from my sight into another corridor. I am about to turn the other way before I hear cursing and a muffled thud. I shake my head and follow him.
Jos is crouching, evidently just recovering from a stumble. A light-haired young man is there with him, holding an animal and refraining from helping Jos up. Judging by Jos's expression, that's probably the best course of action.
The man says something, which Jos answers in a flat, dull tone. The young man laughs, starts to speak when he catches sight of me. He turns pale and disappears with astonishing abruptness, leaving me and Jos alone with the animal.
Which is weaving itself between Jos's legs and making that sound he recorded for me, very loudly. The reason for his stumble becomes clear.
"She's very affectionate," Jos says, sour.
I crouch to get a better look at the beast. Its coat is black, occasionally lightening into dark brown and orange with bursts of white. It looks like a forest floor at autumn when the light shifts over it. "So that's a cat?"
"Yeah," Jos says. "You could try petting behind her ears, she likes that." I reach out to touch it.
The animal shies, but strangely – it keeps to its place, but its back curves away subtly, and I am left holding air. I look up at Jos.
"Well, she is with most people," he says. "Can't get her out from under my feet."
A correct sentiment, but clunkily phrased. I recognize it as an EarthHub standard idiom, translated word-for-word and try to substitute something fitting in Ki'hade. "Kar'tla-na." At Jos's blank look I add, "It's somewhat old-fashioned, you wouldn't have run into it. Someone who purposefully keeps you from your place."
"Like a mind's-enemy?" He squints.
"No, like..." I grapple for meaning. "Someone telling you what others are saying about you, without giving the entire story, so you will mistake their intentions."
His brow furrows. "Whose intentions, those telling or those they're telling about?"
"Either. Both." It's not a clear explanation, I can see that plainly. I've heard my mother explain it, ages back, as One's best mistake. Which, while it caught the fond air of the original phrase, also doesn't seem right. Ki'hade is not her native tongue, either.
Jos is moving back, withdrawing. I can't be certain whether he's trying to avoid me or the cat. I should leave.
Instead I say, "What did Azarcon tell you?"
He shrugs. "Nothing. To get my hair cut." He doesn't seem pleased about the prospect.
It is getting quite shaggy. I wonder whether anyone has seen to it since Jos has been on Aaian-na. "I could," come with you, I am about to say, but what emerges is, "cut it for you."
For a moment, he is quiet. Then he nods. "Yeah. Thanks."
In times when I needed my hair short, I'd cut it myself with an electric razor. I've been keeping it longer, these days, but still had the machine - forgot to get rid of it, in all honesty. I bring it with me, suddenly caught by wariness: perhaps Jos wouldn't like such a plain cut, which surely won't have him look his best.
Jos is in his room waiting for me, facing the wall, frowning as through there was a lesson written there that he needed to focus on. I might as well ask him directly.
I brandish the razor at him. "Shortest setting?"
"That's fine," he says, not even looking. I let out a breath. Silly to worry. This is Jos, after all, who avoids mirrors and turns to stone at compliments to his appearance.
I flick the razor on, run it through Jos's hair quickly and efficiently. He's very still, staring fixedly ahead. Hair falls on the bed around him in soft clumps, leaving his scalp looking bare and vulnerable.
"You should change the sheets," I tell him when I finish, turning off the razor. "And shower, or you'll itch terribly." Without thinking, I brush a severed lock off his collarbone.
His posture, slightly relaxed once I left off, turns rigid again. Entirely still, but not silent. I feel a vibration under my fingers, unsaid words humming like trapped insects.
Wait. I can hear it now that the razor's engine has died down. Jos is trying to make that cat noise again. He really is awful at it.
I cup my right palm over his throat, and the sound is a vivid sensation against my skin. I brush my other hand's fingers up Jos's nape, finding the soft flesh just under his ear, tracing the edge of his jawbone.
Jos's attempts at purring stop and start as he pauses for breath, and whenever he does, I lift my left hand until he resumes. As long as I feel the sound, I trace his shape through his clothes - the unbent line of his neck, the curve of his shoulder blades, the individual vertebrae blurring together under the tough cloth of his Jet uniform.
When I reach the small of his back, the purring stops definitively. I wait for another moment before taking my right hand off his throat.
Jos stands up, brushes hair off himself. "Thank you," he says, bowing slightly at me.
I move aside to let him leave, but he takes me by the shoulders. Puts his mouth to my cheek, quick and awkward. Then he's gone.
In the vas-baram, it was nearly always quiet but for the hissing and chirping of the animals. I made an attempt to understand them, once, to assign meaning to sound.
"Not like that," Tir'tsa said. She was younger than me. Her mother built places for living things that were not striviirc-na; she'd designed the house I lived in, and the vas-baram.
I abandoned my attempts to cluck at the kiriki. "Not like what?"
"With the noises." She tried to emulate me, but ended up emitting a faint whistle instead. "They don't mean anything, it's just moving air. They talk," her wings fluttered, "by moving."
With that, Tir'tsa left, and I stood among the small predators, trying to comprehend a language that I haven't even noticed existed.
"You're late," Jos says, lurking in the shadow of the Macedon’s airlock.
He's right. I needed my papers in correct order, my facts double- and triple-checked. Ter'tlo had slipped away in the small hours of the morning to sleep when she'd had enough of my nervous energy. I don't begrudge her the rest; she's accompanying me now. Better that one of us will have her wits about her.
(Place, as a concept, isn't missing from EarthHub standard either. Thoughts are here or away; the heart wanders. The only thing missing from these metaphors is the concept of staying put, and doesn't that sum up humans beautifully?)
I push inside past Jos, not answering. The words I could say would add no meaning.
Azarcon dismisses Jos, but asks me to stay. Ter'tlo stays beside me, wings lifting a minute increment. The humans haven't noticed her startle, as far as I can tell.
Go with Jos-na, I am about to tell her, but if Azarcon hasn't dismissed her I won't, either.
"This is as far as we can go." Azarcon enunciates carefully, voice clear. It's more than I need at the moment, given my recent practice in EarthHub standard and the silence of the room. "Beyond this, we'll both need our superiors’ approval."
Superiors. I could quibble with the word choice, but now isn't the time. "Yes." I glance at Ter'tlo, appraising. "We could agree to meet again in--"
"Weeks, three." Ter'tlo says. "More, cannot--" In her frustration, she switches back to Ki'hade. "Three weeks, ship time. We'll need at least that for travel, and reconvening, and to reach a decision."
"A month, then." I repeat the considerations in EarthHub standard.
Azarcon stands up and nods. "Make that six weeks onboard. The people back home are... stubborn." His gaze avoids Ter'tlo, and we all keep the thought quiet: to those not aboard, how long are six weeks of ship time?
Long enough for far many inevitable deaths. I breathe, I blink. "Six weeks."
Ter'tlo leaves. I shake Azarcon's hand. It's the least I can do.
Ter'tlo is only a few steps ahead of me when we see them. My hearing is attuned now to the growling flow of EarthHub, the acoustics of the ship enhancing voices further, so I catch, "You'll get--" something.
Jos is in the corridor ahead, facing the young light-haired man. Evan, that’s his name, holding that beast again and pressing his lips to the top of its head.
Fleas, Jos said: I catch the word belatedly. Some kind of parasite.
A man I know as Jos's direct commanding officer walks by, saying something quickly enough I can't catch. Evan looks up, the corners of his mouth turning downward.
I'm not eager to make Jos's – friend? Comrade in arms, at least – disappear again. I walk away.
And hear steps behind me, a few hurried words thrown back.
"I told Evan not to let that cat sleep on my bed again," Jos says, catching up to me. He shakes his head. "It's probably not going to help."
I keep quiet. Jos will come of his own choice, or not. It is not my affair.
But perhaps my steps are that much quicker once he's with me. My hand rests on the small of his back and he pushes towards me with a subtle curving of his spine, unnoticeable by sight.
I do not know where Jos should be. That isn’t new, but for once, I make no attempt to decide his place for him.
Thus Jos stays by me for the rest of that shift. He makes himself useful, fetching papers, translating the occasional awkward turn of phrase, bringing Ter’tlo and me snacks from the mess. He’s unobtrusive, easy to forget about.
So easy, in fact, that I look up from my work and see him curled up in the corner, fast asleep.
It’s blueshift now, and Ter’tlo has already left. Jos’s soft snores, now that I’m paying attention, render the harsh silence of my room into something almost friendly. I am reminded of my first planet leave after taking ship duty, how I couldn’t sleep without the sound of engines.
I should wake Jos up, send him to bed. I stand up to do just that and see his hands bunching in the blanket, clenching and releasing with a rhythmic movement. He rubs his face against it, and though his eyes are still closed, his breathing changes sufficiently that I know he’s awake.
“Shall I carry you to your room, Jos-na?” I say it softly, with a smile on my lips.
His breathing is loud again, catching in the back of his throat to form something that much closer to a purr.
Clear enough. I gather him up in the blanket – for all he’s grown, he’s still so light my heart stutters – and walk to his room.
I put him on his bed like a parcel, removing the blanket, and - because it seems to flow in with that, because Jos does not stop purring - peeling his shirt off, as well. His skin is very soft under it, space-pale. I ghost my hand over his chest, taking him in.
Jos's eyes open, slitted, and the purr stutters until I lie down beside him. I can now run both hands over him. The sound he makes is quieter now that I can pick it up through my hands. I remember our last meeting and press my lips to his cheekbone.
He gasps, barely audible, and turns his face to touch his mouth to mine. I pull away, not meaning to be startled but startled just the same. I know how humans show affection and lust, I do, but his breath is moist and alien on my lips.
When he turns his head back, I take his jaw in my hand. I wait until he is purring again to turn his face toward me again, and brush our lips together, slowly.
That makes him open his mouth, and I touch his lips with my fingers. He freezes, body and voice dumb, until I remove my hand and put my mouth against his again. Soft surface touching, that's all it is, nothing that could possibly hurt.
We stay like that for a good while, learning each other's breath, my hands skimming slowly down his sides. When I pluck at the waist of his pants, the purring stops. It continues, though, when I rest my hands over his clothed thighs.
Jos parts my robes, slow and clumsy, leans close to rub his cheek against my stomach. I sit up and pull his head into my lap. My hand is cautious, trailing in the prickle of his shorn hair, but Jos keeps up a steady purr as I scratch him behind the ears.
The curve of his back is beautiful when I reach to touch him, vertebrae lined up and the faint outline of ribs stretched under his skin. It is odd, too, like remembering the first time I saw a picture of the human skeleton, how the striv children chittered and fluttered their wings at the alien sight.
It feels right, too, cupping my hand over the curve of his waist, fingertips teasing at the sparse line of hair pointing down his stomach.
I don't try to undo any more buttons, but when I pet downwards, Jos's legs fall open and his purring is thunderous. I can see his erection, and in another moment I can feel it, shaft hard under the heel of my hand. I press down once, twice, and Jos chokes and twitches, grabbing my hand to keep in place when I begin to move away, thinking I hurt him.
I have not. Indeed, it seemed I have done the opposite.
Jos's expression is complex as he recovers. His eyelids flutter and he grimaces, wrinkles his nose like a rodent, and finally opens his eyes and looks at me. "That was nice," he mutters. "Do you want..."
"Yes." I want many things. Jos's touch is the least of them, really, for all that it seems desperately urgent now.
He narrrows his eyes at me again. "That's helpful."
"As opposed to imitating a small furry predator? I could do a kiriki mating dance, if you would like."
Jos snorts. He drapes himself over me, boneless, purring once more when I cup his nape. It's easy now to touch my lips to his face, indeed hard not to: I brush by his nose and his forehead, gently turning his face to sniff his neck. He is awkward and bony against me, and impossibly dear.
His hand finds my hardness, and I don't know if I shouldn't move away. Frustration burns under my skin, but that's not always a bad thing. I can always find some good use for frustration.
"Let me," Jos whispers. "Why shouldn't you?"
Why? Why should this be easy, when nothing else ever is?
Perhaps I should pull away. But I am weak and I do not. I feel his fingers curl around me, and pull, pull until they strip me away from myself. Jos's eyelashes crush against my cheek, I feel them moving, see the quirk of his mouth. His smug satisfaction would be irritating if I didn't feel so sated, myself.
When I was thirteen, the kii’redan found me in the vas-baram at midnight, clutching a knife and watching.
"You shouldn't be here now," he said quietly. "What are you trying to do?"
I blinked forcefully, looking away from him as I did it. Striivirc-na didn't like human blinking. It made some of them queasy, and it was impolite to do in company. But I needed to relieve the sting in my eyes.
"One day, I will have to kill." I said it with a tremor in my voice. I was still a soft thing, at thirteen, the way Jos never had a chance to be. "Someone I know, perhaps."
The kii'redan waited, as though he had nothing better to do in the middle of the night than listen to a sulky boy.
"I need to know I can do it," I said, and in a rush added, "I need to make myself not feel it."
The kii'redan's fingers were sudden on my wrist, and painful. I dropped the knife. "Are you a priest or are you a merchant?" His wings snapped in sudden fury.
I stared up at him and willed myself not to blink. I didn't understand, but he knew that.
"You can't strike a bargain with life," the kii'redan said, slow and measured. "I am telling you this because I think you can learn. Few enough humans do.”
I gritted my teeth and said nothing to this.
"Hard choices cost us,” he said. “That is what hard means. But it doesn't follow that you can pay any hard price and get what you want. Sometimes no price will do. Some day, Nikolas-na," and I flinched to hear my name on his lips, at that moment, in that tone, "you may have to kill someone you care for. Slaying an animal won't prepare you for that."
He let my hand go. I allowed it to fall, refusing to cradle it.
Then he reached, plucked a last, high-hanging fruit from the l'iircta tree, and handed it to me. I accepted it, dumbfounded.
His eyes were on me, searching. "And sometimes," he said, "good things will come to you for no price at all. I suspect that will be just as hard for you to accept."
Biting into the fruit was better than answering. It was sour and wild, stinging my tongue. The kii'redan was gone again before I swallowed.
Jos lies on his back, staring upwards, lazily cleaning himself with the cloth I brought him. "It's like you're trying to make things harder on purpose." He directs his words to the indifferent ceiling.
I am looking at him, while I can, while he doesn't turn away or flinch from my gaze. "I'm doing things the best way I know."
"Your way." Jos bunches the cloth up, throwing it aside carelessly.
"Whose way could I take? Yours?" I say it idly, but I watch his face.
His eyes narrow. "I don't have a way." He sounds too dry, almost mocking. I can never tell whether he means the things he says in that voice. “I just float along with whoever I find, I guess.”
“That's not true.” The words rush out of me by themselves, forceful. “Your loyalty isn't easy to come by. I should know.”
“Yeah.” Now he is looking at me, unwavering, like his gaze could cut through me and reality altogether. “You should know. Or maybe I don't have any loyalty at all.”
I can almost taste the bitterness in his voice. I touch my hand to his chest, unable to help myself. “Bun'tla-na,” I say softly. Kar'tla-na, I want to call him, but Jos would not hear my affection in that. Only a rebuke. “What shall become of you?”
I cannot give him a place if he won't take it.
He puts his hand on mine. “I don't need a place,” he says, fierce with frustration. I keep silent, watching him, wary.
“I need--” His hand moves in the air, abortive, a knife slicing through nothing. “I don't know. I need me.” His brow twists up. Perhaps if I look closer, I will understand. “I need to know what and who I am, no matter where I stand, because it keeps falling from under me.”
“You are,” I start, because how can he not know? “I've never seen anyone as persistent as you.”
His mouth twists up. “Calling me stubborn?”
I struggle with words. “You. You just are, you exist so definitively. You aren't anything else but yourself.”
"I don't know what that means.” His hand curls around mine, voice almost gentle, like he's trying to console me. “Sometimes I don't understand you at all.”
He comes closer, then, allowing my hands around him.
"Sometimes is a good start,” I whisper.
He falls asleep. Eventually, so do I.
I didn't think I'd see Jos again before leaving, but he's waiting for me at the dock when I come out to make some last arrangements with Austro administration. Late as I am, I slow down. Because it is Jos, and because I'm not eager to deal with sullen, frightened clerks.
He catches up with me, walking along in silence. I glimpse a chain under his uniform. He catches me looking and slips it out of his shirt: his parents' tags, that I gave to him.
At that time, I only intended to give him something to tie him back, a line to keep him from falling adrift. But it occurs to me, now, how it pleases me that he wears something I gave him close to his skin. It's a terrible ulterior motive, reeling him close with the last scraps of his childhood's memories.
The thought jars me. I am not a kind man, to begin with. “Everything ready for departing?” I ask him.
"Yeah.” He halts, jams his hands in his pockets. I could just keep going.
He saves me from fumbling for words by speaking. “It's going to be a long time before we see each other again.”
If, I don't say. I don't need to. “The work we came here to do was done.”
I mean it as a comfort, not a dismissal. And by some miracle, for once, Jos takes my words as they were intended. “Yeah. So, that's good. But that doesn't mean everything's finished.” He gives me a meaningful look.
Shame I have no idea what his meaning is. “Until the universe dies, there will be unfinished business.”
He cracks a small smile. “You and me, sraga. I want to know where we stand.”
I allow myself a brief touch to his cheek. “You don't know where you stand. You said that quite clearly.”
"Not in general,” he allows. “I don't know if I'll ever know. But in relation to you.” He draws a breath. “I had a thought.”
My fingers go on to trace the soft skin under his ear. Too private a touch for these settings, but we are leaving soon. Surely some impropriety is permissible. “I'd love to hear it.”
"I'm not yours,” he says. Before I can withdraw, he adds, “But maybe you can be mine.”
My hand is still on his skin, picking up a quick heartbeat.
"Not always. Just sometimes. When we come together. In the space you choose.”
I let out a breath. “Perhaps. If the place is right.”
He smiles, and I know I'm not fooling him for a second, that he knows my apparent hesitation is nothing but assent. Sometimes, he understands me a little too well, and it's always with the worst timing.
Well, nearly always.
"It's a good thought,” I say. “You've been thinking a lot, haven't you.”
He shrugs. “Adapted behavior. Cats adopt you, you know. Not the other way around.”
And there I go back to finding him completely incomprehensible. But he follows up behind me as I go to my task, his silent company restful in itself. Perhaps understanding is overrated after all.