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On the Shoulders of the Sea

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The sun was setting at last, spilling a glittering path along the surface of the water. The crude little raft floated as easy as a leaf; Sinbad felt the faintest rise and fall as swells passed underneath them, and it was almost comforting.

"You really think they'll find us?" he asked Gunnar. Might've been for the fourth time, but who was counting.

Gunnar, bare arms loosely around his bent knees, squinted at the horizon and then down at the water. "Yes."

Sinbad tried to take that for an answer. He did. But. "Really?"

Gunnar looked at him. His eyes were pale in his sun-reddened face; his eyebrows were bleached to nothingness. "Really."

Sinbad took that for an answer.

...for maybe a minute. "You really do think—"

"We're in the center of the current now," Gunnar said, leaning to trace a finger through the turquoise water. "We are riding on the shoulders of the sea. He's taking us to where the three currents meet. The islands are there. The Providence will be there. By morning, so will we."

"On the shoulders of the sea," Sinbad said, grinning. Gunnar hardly ever got so...lyrical. Of course, he had said once that he wanted to write poetry.

Gunnar murmured a few words Sinbad didn't understand, all rounded, sloping vowels and pursed lips.

"What's that?"

Gunnar looked away. "Something we used to say to the god—" he said a word, sounded like Nyorra- something—"when we were far from shore, asking him to keep the wave calm and the voyage rich."

"Oh." Sinbad considered. "Did it work?"

"So far," said Gunnar, and laid his head on his knees again.

Sinbad stretched out on his side, feeling much easier. "Put in a good word for me, will you?"

They were quiet then, the raft rippling along in one clear direction, the wind gentle on his shoulders, and Sinbad thought he could actually see the current if he looked hard enough. This cheered him. So for the first time in a while, he stopped squinting out at the horizon and the sea, and let his gaze settle on Gunnar.

This...was much less cheering, actually. Gunnar's hair and beard were so fair now as to be almost white, and his shoulders were a startlingly bright red. Sinbad knew he'd been suffering under the long day of punishing sun, but of course Gunnar had never said a word, and the true extent of it only seemed to be coming on now.

"Gunnar."

A surprisingly cool breeze swirled over them—maybe a hint of the approaching night?—and Sinbad saw Gunnar shiver like a fly-bitten lamb.

"Gunnar," he said more forcefully. "Let me see your back."

Gunnar slowly peered up at him. Underneath his calm, sunburned mask Sinbad could have sworn he saw something far shakier.

"Your back." Sinbad twirled a finger in the air. "Let me take a look."

"I don't see why," Gunnar said. "There is nothing to be done about it."

"You never know." Sinbad sat up. "I mean, I've actually been listening to Anwar lately. I might have learned a thing or two about doctoring."

Gunnar's faded brows quirked eloquently, and Sinbad said, "Well, all right, yeah, but let me look anyway. Please?"

Gunnar blinked at that last, his eyes strangely vulnerable. But before Sinbad could even start to figure that out, Gunnar uncurled himself and lay down on his stomach, his head buried in his arms.

Sinbad hissed through his teeth. The bright red across Gunnar's shoulders got darker across the expanse of his bare, muscled back, deepening almost to violet at the worst of it.

"This is..." He swallowed. "Why didn't you say anything?"

"There is no shade," Gunnar said into his arms, muffled. "There is no shirt. What cannot be cured will be endured."

"Is that one of your poems?" Sinbad asked. His voice sounded more snappish than he'd intended.

Gunnar said nothing. Another breeze skipped past, and this time the full-body shiver was more obvious. The snakelike tattoo curling over most of the center of Gunnar's back flickered, the black ink now dulled beneath the red.

"I wish Anwar were here." Sinbad racked his brain for any of the dozen fussy things he'd ever heard Anwar say about Gunnar's sunburns. He could only remember one thing, and the most obvious.

So, he untied his kerchief from over his own head, shaking out his hair. And for a moment, he considered their waterskin. But he remembered the times they'd had to ration the drinking water on board the Providence, and how Anwar had drummed into their heads that it was always better to save it for inside rather than out. He leaned to dip the kerchief in the sea, instead, soaking it well. Maybe Anwar would be proud of him after all.

He hesitated then, the dripping cloth in both hands. Gunnar was always able to touch him—a friendly grip on the back of his neck, a guiding touch to his shoulder, an entire protective arm thrown round him. But now, with Gunnar quiet and shivering before him, Sinbad felt like an intruder.

"Ready?" he asked.

"Go on," said Gunnar, and his voice was very still, very contained.

Sinbad draped the cloth across the worst part of Gunnar's back. There was a flinch through all the muscles there, twitching even into Gunnar's folded arms. But he was silent. Seawater trickled down his scars and along the lines of his ribs.

It seemed like only a minute or two before Sinbad touched the cloth with tentative fingers and the cool water had gone hot. So he peeled it off, rinsed it in the sea, and laid it on again. Again Gunnar flinched, though this time it was tighter, smaller, his whole body braced against it. Water was pooling at the small of his back, the orange light of the setting sun glinting off it like a jewel.

"Oh, Gunnar," Sinbad sighed. He tugged at the edge of the cloth, straightening out a folded corner to cover one of the runes graven into the skin. "What are you doing here?"

Gunnar's head turned to reveal one quizzical eye.

"I don't mean here. I mean..." He wanted to fuss with the cloth again, just to have something to do. He gripped his hands together instead. "Stories of your homeland are always about snow."

He watched Gunnar's eye, the light blue of a high winter sky, and imagined him wrapped in furs, knee-deep in the sort of snow Sinbad had never seen in person. He was laughing, his teeth bright, his skin pale and smooth.

"For me," Gunnar said, "they are always about death."

To that, Sinbad had no answer. He scooped up a double handful of seawater and trickled it over the cloth.

Gunnar shivered, his eye closing. "One day, the sun will devour me. I will dry up to bones. And the hitch in the world will be settled, the thing out of place smoothed away." His voice was faint and rhythmic. Sinbad regretted what he'd said about the poetry.

"You're not out of place," he said uncomfortably. He knew as well as Gunnar did that not a single other person on the Providence had skin that burned like this. Gunnar stood out wherever they went. Northman, everyone said, eyeing his hair and his skin and his size. And Gunnar kept to his quiet ways, anchoring the crew, tending to the ship, lifting the impossible weight and taking the unstoppable blow, day by day the sun whitening his hair and reddening his arms.

...Those arms, their brawn gentled for him. A hand on his neck, an arm across his chest. As if Gunnar's entire body was a shield for Sinbad, or a cloak he could wear.

Sinbad tried a smile, feeling suddenly wobbly. "If only we'd come away with our shirts," he said. "Maybe the sun is punishing you for showing off so much."

Gunnar's eye narrowed and he let out a huff of breath. Sinbad carefully removed the cloth to soak it again.

This time, when he laid it across Gunnar's back, the flinch was much less. He neatened the corners, and gingerly smoothed one fingertip through a rivulet trickling down the side of Gunnar's chest.

"Better?"

Gunnar nodded, watching him.

Sinbad, drawn by the vulnerability in Gunnar's face—drawn, yes, but also frightened—smoothed his fingertip there again, following the swell of the muscle.

Gunnar sighed.

Strange, how Sinbad's breath caught at that sigh—it was so small, somehow. So fragile. He reached out his hand, hesitated over the expanse of burned skin, and laid it on the back of Gunnar's head. His thumb stroked through the soft, fair hair, gold at the roots, as light and tumbled as feather down.

Gunnar tucked his face back into his folded arms. Sinbad passed thumb and fingertips rhythmically through Gunnar's hair, listening to his breathing go shaky.

The sun set fully, the last bright rim slipping down into the sea. And though there was still plenty of light, it felt suddenly colder; the wind picked up, and he saw little twists of white foam on top of some of the ocean's ripples.

He slid his hand down Gunnar's head to the back of his neck and felt a steady shiver setting in there. Now he really did wish for Anwar—finding the balance between cooling the burn and warming up the chills seemed to call for a doctor's skill. Sinbad, left to his own devices, sat like a fool and held the back of Gunnar's neck in his hand for what felt like ages.

Then a cross-swell slapped against the side of the raft, splashing water up over the side onto them both, and Sinbad startled as if just waking up. He slid close to Gunnar's side and stretched out, moving his hand gingerly to the leather waistband of Gunnar's trousers, just below the small of his back.

Heat radiated off of Gunnar everywhere, like the last coal buried in the ashes. But Sinbad tried to get as close as he could without touching the burned skin.

"Won't be long," he murmured, stroking back and forth along Gunnar's trouser waist. "By morning we'll be home."

Gunnar turned his head again, and now Sinbad could see both eyes. In fact, in the gray light of the long dusk he could clearly see smudges of moisture at the corners of his eyes, sparkling in his invisible eyelashes.

He wanted to pull Gunnar close, to put an arm tight across his back and give him a shield to wear for a change. But the skin there radiated pain and heat, and Sinbad found himself taking an awkward grip on one of Gunnar's trousered thighs instead.

"Home," he insisted. "You're not out of place. That's your place. This—" he squeezed the muscle of Gunnar's leg, pushed his own leg and hip against him— "—this is your place. Yours. Understand?"

Gunnar looked at him, a long stare from those pale and secret eyes. "Yes," he said at last. "Thanks." His voice was even and controlled.

"I don't think you do," Sinbad said, and watched Gunnar's face for that flicker of vulnerability. Of hope, long denied.

Then before he could stop to think twice—and oh, it felt good not to think twice, or to think at all—Sinbad kissed him, licking salt spray from his lips. Gunnar's body flinched as it had under the touch of the cool water, but his arm went around Sinbad's back and clutched at him tight. Not measured and protective, but clinging to him, and wanting.

"Come," Sinbad panted into his mouth, and Gunnar turned from his front onto his side and twined himself around Sinbad again. The skin of his arms surged with heat, but he didn't seem to care.

"I know," Sinbad managed to say. "I know why you're here."

Gunnar kissed him with appetite, lingering, and then pulled back, pressing their foreheads together. "Do you?" His voice was hoarse.

"I think so," Sinbad said. "I hope so."

Gunnar closed his eyes at that, and took some breaths. Another small glimmer of moisture appeared at the corner of his eyelid. Sinbad stroked his hair.

The ocean swells rocked them, and the ripples of the current sang like faint music. When next Sinbad opened his eyes, he saw Gunnar watching him.

"What?" he said, smiling, and rejoiced to see Gunnar smile too. And not a pained or wry smile, either, but something tender and even sweet.

Gunnar shook his head and said only, "The stars are out."

"I suppose you can read them," Sinbad said. "What do they say?"

Gunnar gazed at the flecks of distant fire in the sky. "They point the way home," he said.

Sinbad looked up.

"They point to you," Gunnar said. And he buried his face in the crook of Sinbad's neck, hot skin and soft hair and the faintest brush of his eyelashes as he closed his eyes.

The night's chill passed over them. Sinbad held Gunnar in his arms, sharing the heat and the shivering alike. And at sunrise, as Gunnar had promised, the current brought them to the Providence.

All the while Gunnar lay in their quarters, Anwar clucking over him with clean cloths and cool vinegar, Sinbad swung in a hammock nearby and watched him. Whenever their eyes met—and even some times they didn't—they smiled.