There had not been time, Gunnar told himself afterward; there had not been any other way. But it was not true. There was always a choice. He could have chosen to let them die instead, but he had refused to—he had wanted it to end another way. And it was only right, surely, that he had to pay a price for the things he wanted.
He would not have broken his oath where they could see him for anything less than their lives. They were looking for Tiger's tigers when it happened, somewhere among the lower peaks of the mountains of the Kavkas—they had stumbled across a cult of tiger-hunters in the forest, and Tiger had not taken kindly to the sight of the loops of teeth they wore around their necks.
There weren't so very many of them, ten or twelve at most; but that was twice as many as the crew of the Providence could easily face, with Cook still somewhere days behind them on the ship, and Anwar still Anwar. Oh, he carried a knife these days, after being tied up one too many times. But the rest of them tried to make sure that he never needed to use it.
But there were ten or twelve tiger-hunters. Tiger was too angry to be careful, and Sinbad did his best to cover her back, but both of them were soon bleeding from long, narrow slashes. Gunnar lost sight of Rina, trying to keep any of the tiger-hunters from reaching Anwar—but one of them got past him and jammed a knife hilt-deep through Anwar's shoulder, and that was the beginning of the end. Gunnar could see how it would go: Tiger and Sinbad would rush to defend Anwar when he stumbled, and one or the other would reach him safely but probably not both. Rina would dash out to help, and she was fast but not that fast—she would hamstring one, perhaps, stab another, and then there would still be six, eight left—
It was as easy as breathing—easier. Gunnar let go of all that he had been holding in and became himself. For a moment it was dizzying, to be so tall, and the differences in what he could hear and see and feel made him falter. But he could not forget his purpose: he found his balance, planted his feet, and roared.
Sinbad heard Anwar cry out, and he aimed one last blow at the hunter he was facing, knocking the man back and slicing open his chest, before he let himself turn. Anwar was on the ground behind him with a knife in his shoulder—through the meat of it, Sinbad saw, to the outside of the bone, not anywhere it might have hit his lungs. It would bleed a lot and it would hurt a lot, but he'd probably be fine, and the relief made Sinbad suck in a breath.
He would probably be fine—at least as long as nobody stabbed him anywhere else, anyway. Sinbad needed to move him somewhere they could protect him, or at least get around to his other side. He darted toward Anwar, grabbed Anwar's good shoulder, but Anwar didn't look at him; Anwar was busy staring up openmouthed at—
At the bear. The bear, the bear, who was standing two steps away at most and opening its mouth—it was roaring, full into the face of one of the hunters. Maybe, Sinbad thought dazedly, if they were lucky, it was friends with a lot of tigers.
He wrapped an arm around Anwar's chest and hauled them both backwards, and the bear didn't even spare them a glance. It roared again and then swiped with one massive paw, slamming the hunter in front of it sideways into a tree; one loping step, on all fours for only a moment, and it swatted the hunter who'd stabbed Anwar backward, the man crying out as its claws scraped his arm open from shoulder to elbow.
There was a moment's quiet after the sound of his shout faded—the rest of the hunters had been startled into stillness. It was mad, utterly mad; but Sinbad would have sworn the bear looked at the hunters, looked at them and even glared. And then it reared up and roared a third time, and the tiger-hunters who were still standing turned, almost as one, and sprinted away into the forest.
"What—what—" Anwar was saying, a breathless murmur, as the bear swung its massive head around to look at them; but it only met Sinbad's gaze for a moment before it turned away and lumbered off. There was something about the way it moved in that instant that made Sinbad narrow his eyes—about the solemn briefness of that glance, the way the bear looked down and away after—but he couldn't figure out what it was.
At least not until after Rina rushed out from behind a tree, gasping, and said, "It's Gunnar."
There was a moment's silence; none of them moved.
"What?" Tiger said, from behind Sinbad.
"The bear, the bear," Rina said, "it was Gunnar."
"That's a terrible joke, Rina," Anwar said, and then winced when Sinbad shifted and bumped into his arm.
"Sorry, sorry," Sinbad said. Tiger stepped around him and knelt down to examine the knife in Anwar's shoulder, and Sinbad kept a careful hand on Anwar's back and moved to give her space. "Rina, what are you talking about?"
Rina put her hands on her hips and cocked her head at him—she'd looked surprised, confused, to start with, but that was giving way to pure annoyance. "The bear," she said. "I'm telling you, it was Gunnar—I saw him."
"That is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," Anwar said. "Or at least it should be," and then, to Tiger, "No, no, don't pull it out yet!"
"He's never turned into a bear before, Rina," Sinbad said, still supporting Anwar's back.
Tiger shrugged. "That we know of."
Sinbad blinked at her; she didn't look away from Anwar's shoulder.
"Oh, come on," Anwar said, "you can't be serious!"
"If the bear isn't Gunnar," Tiger said, conversational, "then where is he?"
The sun was setting. Sinbad cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted louder.
It was mad, he told himself, utterly mad; but whether Gunnar was a bear or not, they still couldn't find him, and Sinbad couldn't shake the memory of the bear's gaze, how it had turned away after and quietly walked off. If it had been maddened, sick, the way animals sometimes get, it would have attacked them, too, wouldn't it? But it hadn't. It had struck two of the hunters, scared the rest away, and then just—left them.
The bear's fur had been pale, Sinbad remembered. Not white, not like the blue-eyed tigers Sinbad had seen unloaded in cages from boats in Basra's harbor; browner than that, but—pale.
"Oh, stop it," he told himself, shaking his head, and then out of the corner of his eye he saw movement.
It might have been nothing, but then again it might not. Sinbad worked his way through the trees toward something light-coloured—maybe even furry? In the increasingly gray, dim light, it was hard to tell, which was why Sinbad ended up getting close enough to the leopard to make her angry.
He guessed it was a she because a moment after she started to growl at him, there was a feeble imitation, wobbly and oddly pitched—a cub, maybe a few of them, hidden somewhere in the undergrowth, and he wasn't after them but the mother leopard didn't know that. It was dim, but her teeth still managed to catch the light. Sinbad swallowed.
"Sorry," he whispered, "sorry," and he eased back a step. But the leopard just hitched her shoulders even higher, shifting her weight like she was thinking about leaping at him.
Sinbad was going to die, Sinbad was absolutely going to die—he wasn't even going to get to watch Gunnar laugh at the story of how Rina convinced them all that Gunnar was a bear, because he was going to be dead, and probably if Sinbad died at the end, Gunnar wouldn't think it was all that funny a story—
He heard the roar first, thunderous, and then saw the bear, loping between the trees at an angle so that it could skid to a stop halfway between Sinbad and the leopard. The leopard hunkered down, snarling; and the bear roared again but backed away, lowering its head, until it was close enough to nudge a shoulder into Sinbad.
And a nudge from this bear was almost enough to knock someone over. Sinbad stumbled sideways and gasped in a breath, and hoped Rina had been right. He moved back and sideways, the bear bumping him here and there when it seemed to think he was too slow—his heart felt like it was about to stop every time it happened, but it was always a shoulder or the bear's forehead that touched him, never teeth or claws.
When they were finally far enough away that Sinbad couldn't see the leopard anymore, he slowed and waited, and when the bear nudged him again, huffing impatiently, he whirled to point a finger at it. "I have no idea whether you're Gunnar or not," he told it, "but either way you're awfully bossy, my friend."
The bear flinched—there was no other word for the way it moved, drawing away from him sharply, shrinking back into itself as though it wished it could make itself something other than an extremely large bear.
Which, if it really was Gunnar, it could.
"If you are Gunnar," Sinbad said, "then why—are there rules? Do you have to wait for—for sunset, or tomorrow, before you can change back?"
He reached for the bear while he said it, sinking his fingers into its fur the same way he might put a hand to Gunnar's arm to catch his attention. The bear was still for a moment under his hand and then shook him off, one rippling movement of its shoulders before it huffed again and backed away, not looking at Sinbad—carefully not looking, deliberately not looking. It was Gunnar, Sinbad thought.
"Gunnar," Sinbad said, and then stopped: Gunnar had moved sideways and was coming toward him again, shoving at Sinbad's arm and back with his massive furry head. "Gunnar, what—hey—stop it—"
Gunnar groaned irritatedly and bumped Sinbad again—intentional, a push, and Sinbad stumbled a couple steps with the force of it. He managed to find his balance before he could fall over entirely, just in time for Gunnar to nudge him again.
"All right, all right," Sinbad said, laughing, "we'll keep going," and then he took two more steps, three.
There was no rustle of leaf litter behind him, no impatiently-snorted bear breath.
"Well, come on," Sinbad said, and turned: Gunnar was standing there, unmoving, gazing after Sinbad with massive pale eyes. "Come on," Sinbad repeated, motioning. Maybe it was hard for Gunnar to understand words when he was a bear? Maybe especially when they were 'Arabī—but the only Norrœnt Sinbad knew was what Gunnar had taught him without meaning to, "stupid" and "idiot" and whatever word northmen used when they'd just cut themselves trying to sharpen a knife.
Gunnar still didn't move his feet—he tilted his head at Sinbad instead, lifting his muzzle to nod toward the little hill he'd tried to shove Sinbad up, and his eyes were clear, aware. He wasn't confused.
"Will you come on?" Sinbad said, and rolled his eyes. "What, you think I'm going to—" and then the words dried up in his throat. You think I'm going to leave you here?, he'd been about to say, and he would have been kidding, but he was starting to realise that was exactly what Gunnar thought. "What—no. Gunnar—"
Gunnar made a noise in his throat, low and rumbling, and lurched forward to slam his shoulder into Sinbad; this time Sinbad did fall, and Gunnar leaned over him and set one paw on Sinbad's chest, snarling in Sinbad's face. His claws were really long and his teeth were really big, and for a moment Sinbad felt his heart pound. But for all that Gunnar's paw was about as wide as Sinbad's entire chest—and there was an angry bear behind it—the weight on Sinbad wasn't any more than Gunnar's human hand might weigh, set on Sinbad's shoulder.
"You aren't going to hurt me," he said, putting a hand over the back of Gunnar's paw; and Gunnar growled but didn't move, didn't even press any harder. "I'm going to hurt me."
"That's right," Sinbad said. "It's getting pretty dark, you know. And if you run away, I'm going to have to run after you, which means it's only going to be a matter of time before I trip and fall and break my neck. Which won't be your fault, obviously, but I'm guessing that won't stop you blaming yourself."
Gunnar tilted his head to eye Sinbad for a long moment; and then all at once he sighed and looked away, the motion so like Gunnar that Sinbad couldn't help smiling.
His hand was still on Gunnar's paw, and he tightened his fingers until Gunnar looked at him again. "I won't go back unless you come with me," he said. It came out more quietly than it should have, too serious; but it was true, and Gunnar ought to know it.
Gunnar sighed again, and then lifted his paw from Sinbad's chest.
Sinbad would have felt kind of silly leading a bear back to camp; but as it turned out, he was the one who ended up following Gunnar, since Gunnar seemed to have a better idea of which way to go to get back than Sinbad did. It got easier when they got closer—they came up over a rise and suddenly there was light shining through the trees, warm and flickering. Somebody had started a fire, probably so they could heat water to clean Anwar's shoulder with, or maybe to help make a poultice. But Sinbad kept his hand on Gunnar's bear-shoulder instead of running on ahead, and they stepped out into the camp-clearing at pretty much the same time.
From a distance, Sinbad had been able to hear Anwar telling Tiger what to do about his shoulder, and Tiger's occasional irritated huffs. It turned out Anwar was the one who was facing the right way to catch sight of them first, and his voice trailed off, his eyes widening. Tiger noticed, of course she did, and she turned and glanced over at them.
"So you found him," she said to Sinbad with a single approving nod, and then turned back to Anwar's shoulder.
"What—you—what—bear," Anwar said.
"What, another one?" Rina said, coming around from the back of the tree that was sheltering their packs—she had a couple jars in her hands, probably some of Anwar's supplies, and she went still but didn't drop them when she saw Gunnar. "Oh," she said, round-eyed, swallowing; and then she sniffed and rolled her shoulders and angled a glare down at Anwar. "I told you."
"Bear!" Anwar said, pointing, wide-eyed.
Sinbad couldn't help it: he dug his fingers into Gunnar's fur and started to laugh.
Tiger carefully wrapped up Anwar's shoulder, Rina putting the supplies away as Tiger finished with them; Sinbad sat quietly next to Gunnar, a hand still on his bear-shoulder, and the longer Gunnar lay there with him, clear-eyed, the less bewildered and more curious Anwar's stare got.
"You really," he said at last. "That's really—you really think that's—"
"If it isn't," Sinbad said, "then it's an awfully good-natured bear."
Gunnar huffed, and Sinbad scratched his shoulder soothingly.
"But how," Anwar said helplessly, not so much a question as sheer solid disbelief.
"Magic, probably," Tiger said. She let Anwar go with one last solid pat to the shoulder—which made him wince—and then looked away. "Did you see anything in the forest?"
Sinbad bit his lip. The look on her face was—fine, relaxed; but they were here for a reason, and when Tiger said anything, what she meant was my tigers. My family.
"No," he admitted, as gently as he could, and then caught her wrist before she could stand up and move away. "But we'll keep looking."
She didn't say anything, just looked at him. But the nod she gave him was as good as a thank you, coming from her.
"So," Rina said briskly. "I don't suppose you and the bear happened to catch us some dinner?"
They hadn't, of course, but that was all right: Cook had prepared more than enough for their trip into the mountains. It was just that it was all dried, or else flat bread—nothing that would spoil, and less variety than they'd gotten used to, sailing on a ship with Cook. Rina still ate every crumb she could get her hands on, but she'd started to sigh mournfully at it first.
Anwar needed food—and rest, which would come after it—the most, with his injury and all. Which naturally meant that he barely ate anything, because he was too busy asking the bear questions.
"—and your vision, is that in colour or shades of gray?"
Gunnar stared at him for long enough to seem pointed about it, and then snorted.
"He can't answer, Anwar," Sinbad observed idly.
"Or some colours but not others?"
"Still can't answer."
"He could nod his head," Anwar protested.
Sinbad laughed. "Only works if you make the questions yes-or-no," he said, and rounded the fire to settle into his usual place next to Gunnar.
Admittedly, while it was his usual place, there was a little less space; Gunnar being a bear changed things a bit. But Sinbad didn't think he'd managed to elbow Gunnar anywhere important, which made it a surprise when Gunnar lurched up to move away from him.
"Hey, sorry," Sinbad said. "I didn't mean to—pinch your fur or anything. Here, come on, sit back down."
He made a show of easing over a little further, leaving even more room for Gunnar than before. But the bear just stared at him and didn't move.
It was true night, not just the twilight dimness they'd had to search by earlier; and with half his bear-face blue shadow, eyes dark, the firelight flickering over him like a live thing—suddenly Sinbad felt thoroughly aware that he was looking at a bear, in a way that made his heart pound.
But it was Gunnar. However impossible it might have seemed, it was Gunnar and Sinbad knew that. His heart had pounded earlier, too, when Gunnar had bowled him over—what did that matter? His heart was always doing stupid things. The bear was Gunnar, and Sinbad liked sitting next to Gunnar by the fire while they ate, and that wasn't going to change just because Gunnar was even hairier today than usual.
"Come on," Sinbad said again, and held up a piece of dried meat, smoked the way Cook always did it. "I'm guessing you can't really eat with your—er, paws, but—"
He threw it as carefully as he could; and Gunnar immediately tossed his bear-head and caught it, and then blinked, frowning down the length of his muzzle—betrayed, Sinbad thought with a smile, by his own reflexes.
"Come on," Sinbad repeated. "Sit down."
Gunnar stayed where he was for a long moment, the meat still pinched there between his very impressive bear-teeth, looking at Sinbad like he thought Sinbad would take it back. But then, gingerly, he sat back on his haunches; and when he lowered himself down the rest of the way, slumping a little bit to one side, he pressed the whole warm weight of his shoulder into Sinbad.
"Good bear," Sinbad murmured, sliding his fingers into Gunnar's fur, and didn't let go.
They let the fire burn itself down before they went to sleep—Sinbad had discovered this was his least favorite part of the day, when they were up wandering around in the mountains. They weren't even high enough for it to snow this time of year, or so Tiger had assured him, but he was still the coldest he'd ever been in his life.
He lay there, wrapped up in his three blankets on the flattest section of ground he'd been able to find, and glared resentfully through half-closed eyes at the coals as they went gradually more black than red. Abandoning him, one at a time, to the cold stone underneath him and the chill flat sky over him, and of course the frigid wind—
Somewhere behind him, Gunnar let out a little whuffling sound and shifted, and Sinbad realised all at once that he was being an idiot.
He didn't want to get up or let any cold air into his blankets, so he rolled instead; just a couple turns was enough to fetch him up against something large, fluffy, and exceptionally warm. "This is the best idea I've ever had," Sinbad told the edge of his blanket, muffled, and dared to put a hand out so he could pat Gunnar gratefully—only to feel him go abruptly, perfectly still.
As if he were uncomfortable, except—except maybe it hadn't been that last time, and maybe it wasn't that this time either. Sinbad didn't have anything more than a hunch to go on, not when Gunnar couldn't talk to him, when everything about Gunnar's face was so different. But when had Sinbad ever needed more than that, anyway? So he dug his fingers into Gunnar's vast furry side and made the leap.
"For the last time," he said, "I'm not scared of you, and I know you aren't going to hurt me. And if you get up to go hide somewhere, I'm just going to follow you, because this is the warmest I've been all day."
He couldn't see Gunnar at all—he could barely see his own hand in front of him. But he'd nudged himself up against Gunnar's side, through the blankets, from thigh to shoulder; and he could feel it, when Gunnar gave in. Without that tension pulling him taut, he was even more comfortable to lie against than before, and Sinbad settled into him with a sigh.
It occurred to him, dimly, that perhaps Gunnar was always as warm as this. And it put a brief hot spark through him, to think of lying so close to Gunnar when he was himself—without so many blankets, even. He was almost still awake enough to be embarrassed for thinking it, except—
Except for how comfortable it would be. Never mind all the things Sinbad ought not to think about with Gunnar right there, whether Gunnar was a bear or not; being so relaxed with Gunnar, and Gunnar with him—being able to lie there tangling his ankles with Gunnar's, with his arm around Gunnar, with his face tucked close against Gunnar's shoulder—that was the image he couldn't shake. He went to sleep with that thought in his mind, and a strange sharp ache in his chest, and didn't let himself consider why.
Sinbad had thought there might be a chance that all Gunnar needed to change back was time. There were parts of the day that were magic, or could be, at least judging by how Amah's curse had worked—maybe being a bear lasted until sunrise, the same way not getting strangled had.
But when he woke, the sun had already climbed up over the mountain's shoulder, and Gunnar was still a bear. Which Sinbad probably should have been sorrier about, except he couldn't be bothered: he was still so warm.
"Nice of you to join us, sleepyhead," Rina called, as Sinbad sighed and stretched, and Gunnar rumbled out a comfortable little bear groan beside him. And then a piece of trail bread smacked Sinbad in the face.
"Hey!" he said, indignant, and then caught it before it could slide off him to the ground and put it in his mouth. It was flat—easier to pack that way—but somehow still soft, where every other piece of flatbread Sinbad had ever had in his life had been stale and hard.
Then again, all the bread in general Sinbad had ever had in his life had been stale and hard, before the Providence. But still. Cook worked miracles.
"Oh, stop whining, you're fine," Rina said—but she did wait for him to look up before she threw an orange at him, too.
Encountering the tiger-hunters should have made things feel more urgent, except there wasn't exactly anywhere to hurry to. Tiger remembered the mountains as well as anybody could ask, but they'd changed while she'd been gone: trees had grown, boulders had shifted, landmarks had fallen in rockslides or been toppled by storms. Sometimes she made them all stop, and a certain look of quiet satisfaction stole over her face as she prowled around the rocks—that was how Sinbad knew she'd recognised something.
But it was still slow going, and nobody could do the going except Tiger.
It took Sinbad a little while to notice; he was trying to keep an eye on Anwar, and he thought at first that maybe Tiger was, too. Keeping the pace slow on purpose, so as not to jog Anwar's shoulder or tire him out.
And that was probably part of it. She was the one who'd bandaged him up, and she knew better than anyone what sort of shape he was in. But she wasn't glancing back at him half as often as Sinbad was. She was just—looking off into the middle distance, mouth flat, expressionless.
It didn't make sense. She wanted to find her tigers, that was the whole reason they'd all come here—
Unless, Sinbad realised with a slow cold feeling, she was starting to fear there was nothing to find.
He must have—moved somehow, clenched his fingers in Gunnar's fur; Gunnar growled, the pitch of it just like a question would be, and lurched so his shoulder pressed for a moment into Sinbad's hip.
(He'd walked with Sinbad before, more often than not, when he was himself. But Sinbad couldn't have kept his hand settled on the back of Gunnar's neck, then, not without it seeming—)
"Come on," Sinbad murmured to him, and picked up his pace just enough to let them catch up to her.
She didn't look at him as they got closer, or even at Gunnar; but that didn't mean she didn't know they were there. And, unlike Anwar, she couldn't be tricked or even convinced to talk about things she'd rather not talk about, so Sinbad didn't try. He just touched the back of her wrist for a second and said, "They're all right."
"You don't know that," Tiger said.
"I mean, I sort of do," Sinbad said. "They're tigers. Those idiots with the necklaces ran away from one bear. What are they going to do with half a dozen tigers? Run away faster? Plus—well, they wouldn't be here if there weren't any tigers left, would they?"
Tiger gave him a long flat look. "Thanks," she said, very dry.
Sinbad beamed at her as though he thought she meant it, because that would probably make her roll her eyes, and if she was busy being irritated with Sinbad then maybe for a little while she wouldn't be worried. And that was when Gunnar went still, and then suddenly lurched up onto his hind feet.
It had been easy to forget just how enormous he was, looking at him lying down by the fire or as he ambled along next to Sinbad—he was tall as a bear, even taller than usual, and certainly broader, more massive. Sinbad found himself stumbling back a step in surprise, which might have been what kept him from falling over entirely when Gunnar tilted his head and roared.
"What? What?" Anwar said from behind them, a little shakily. "Is it the hunters? Are they back again? Or—"
"He still can't answer," Sinbad said absently. It wasn't the hunters, or at least he didn't think it was; surely Gunnar would have been a little more emphatic about getting them all to turn around, or would have charged off into the forest to try to fight the whole battle by himself. And he wasn't doing either of those things.
He was standing there, head cocked, round bear ears at attention instead of flat against his head. Like he was listening for something, like—
Like he thought something might roar back.
"It's the tigers."
"What?" Rina said.
"It's the tigers," Sinbad repeated, still looking at Gunnar; and Gunnar flicked an ear in Sinbad's direction—hah, he was right—and then dropped heavily to all fours and loped off between the trees. Tiger shot a glance at Gunnar's back and then at Sinbad, and that was all she needed to send her streaking off to follow.
"It's okay," Sinbad told Anwar, "I don't think they're very far away." He'd heard—well, he'd thought for a second it might just have been the wind, but the way Gunnar'd reacted meant maybe it had been a tiger. "We can catch up, even if I have to carry you. Or you, Shorty," he added to Rina, and earned himself a smack to the arm for his trouble.
It was Tiger's tigers after all. Sinbad and Anwar and Rina didn't even have to catch up; they stopped in a clearing to give Anwar a moment to rest without his shoulder moving, and then Tiger suddenly stepped out of the trees with her hand draped over the neck of a tiger the size of a small horse. Which Sinbad was pretty sure she wouldn't have done with a tiger she didn't know personally.
"Oh, my," Anwar said, and swallowed audibly.
Rina didn't look any less nervous, to Sinbad's eyes; but she scoffed and slapped Anwar with the back of her hand, and said, "Oh, it's fine."
"It's a tiger," Anwar said, and then glanced to the left, the right, and amended this: "My mistake, it's eight tigers."
Sinbad could almost guess who was who, looking around the clearing. Tiger hadn't exactly gone on about them, but she'd explained a little, in her terse practical way. The one she was walking with had gone a bit gray round the muzzle and the ears—that had to be Grandmother. Tigers didn't like company much, but Grandmother and three of her daughters, one of her sons, shared the hunting. The living in the Kavkas had gotten hard enough to keep them together even after they were grown, even when Tiger had been there—before the tiger-hunters had popped up, in other words.
There were three others who were a little smaller; not anything Sinbad wanted to have angrily charge at him, but without the same breadth in the shoulders as Grandmother, without the same thickness to the ruff around the chin. Those had to be the ones Tiger called her sisters. And—
"Eleven," Tiger said, mouth slanting up ever so slightly in one corner; and three more, these still small enough that Sinbad might actually be able to pick one up without breaking his back, came tumbling in past her, growling fiercely and tackling each other, smacking each other's faces with their big fuzzy paws.
Anwar's expression went from deer-nervous to adoring so fast it made Sinbad laugh aloud. Gunnar echoed him in a rumble—and that had been a laugh too, Sinbad knew, but for one sharp instant all he could think was how badly he wanted to hear Gunnar laugh, Gunnar himself, in the low rough way he did when he was happiest.
They spent the rest of the day with Tiger's tigers. She couldn't talk to them, exactly; but she could flip her braid across her shoulders like they would swish a tail, and blink at them slowly the way they sometimes did with each other, and let out yawns that seemed to show just as many teeth. And as for the tigers, they seemed to have missed having a den-mate with hands: they just about lined up to have Tiger run her fingers through their coats, and pick burrs and grit and prickers out of their tails and from between their toes.
They didn't seem offput by Gunnar—and the cubs were perfectly happy to climb all over him, which was something to see. But the grown tigers gave him a bit of a berth, just like they did with Rina and Anwar, with Sinbad. Like they could tell that he was still human somehow, underneath all that fur.
By evening, though, the tigers were comfortable enough to go hunting, leaving Tiger and her sisters with the cubs, and to drag back a whole mountain goat, which they gnawed on contentedly while the picky squeamish humans ate their cooked food.
Tiger came over by the fire to get herself some bread and fruit and trail meat, to Sinbad's surprise. She caught his startled glance and tilted her chin toward the goat, and said, "They need it more," which Sinbad supposed made sense. And Gunnar—
Gunnar didn't even look at it. He didn't make a fuss about sitting with Sinbad, this time; he was happy to sit and catch what Sinbad threw to him, fruit and meat alike, and even accepted a little bread, though of course he could swallow a whole chunk of the stuff in one go without even needing to chew. "You animal," Sinbad told him, affecting disgust, and was given a very flat look and a shove in response.
When it grew truly dark, and when most of the goat was gone, Grandmother stood—and all the other tigers stood after, almost as one. The cubs were picked up by the scruff of the neck to be carried, and then the tigers began to weave off through the trees, one at a time, and every one of them passing by Tiger for one last scritch of the ears. Grandmother was the last to go, and Tiger didn't settle for a scritch; she dropped down and hugged Grandmother instead, easing her shoulder under Grandmother's graying chin, digging her fingers into Grandmother's fur.
"I'll come back and see you again sometime, I promise," Tiger murmured.
Grandmother bore this sincerity patiently for a long moment. And then she rubbed her ear against the side of Tiger's head until Tiger ducked back, laughing, and gave Grandmother an opening to lick her cheek from jaw to temple.
"All right, all right, go on," Tiger told her; and she gave Tiger another long look in the firelight, and then turned and followed her children.
It was funny, how well it worked to be a tiger in the mountains—all the underbrush, the leaves and branches and long narrow shadows, let Grandmother melt away into them, even though she was orange and stripey and should by all rights have been obvious. It was like she was the trees, a little bit, or the spaces between them; and when Sinbad fell asleep that night, pressed up warm against Gunnar, he thought he could almost see her clever pale eyes looking back at him.
In the morning, Gunnar was still a bear.
Sinbad felt oddly disappointed by it. Of course, if one sunrise hadn't done the trick, there wasn't any reason to think two would. But somehow—somehow it seemed like finding Tiger's tigers should have done it. That was why they'd come here; that was why they were hauling themselves around these stupid mountains, that was why they'd had to fend off tiger-hunters in the first place. Tiger was satisfied, had—got closure, or whatever. Surely that was a perfectly good reason for someone to stop being a bear nearby, right?
But Gunnar was still a bear.
And he was still a bear the day after, and the day after that. They were slower to climb down out of the mountains than they had been on their way up, what with Anwar's shoulder. It was healing up well enough; but if he walked for too long or at too quick a pace, it still hurt enough to make him get all drawn in the face, and start his breath coming short.
So Gunnar had plenty of time to turn back.
But he didn't.
It was almost funny how frustrating it was, except that it was really frustrating. Not that Sinbad had stopped appreciating the fur at night. He'd dreamed of the mountains sometimes in Basra, of being somewhere where the sun was weak and the wind was cool; he hadn't learned to appreciate being warm the way it deserved, before this. But they were almost out of the mountains anyway—he wouldn't need a bear for that for very much longer. And Gunnar still wouldn't turn back.
Maybe he couldn't, of course. Sinbad had tried very hard not to think about that, and the times when he couldn't stop himself, had reassured himself that it didn't make any sense for that to be how it worked. It wasn't as though anybody had cursed Gunnar, after all. The tiger-hunters had looked just as surprised as the rest of them to see a bear appear, and what good would it have done them to curse somebody they were fighting into being a bear? That was just stupid.
The only person who hadn't seemed surprised had been Gunnar. Oh, he'd run off into the woods and all; but he'd come tearing back as soon as Sinbad had gotten in trouble, and he hadn't seemed panicked about it. He hadn't acted like someone who had no idea why he was a bear.
Which meant he'd known he could do it, and had done it on purpose. He wasn't clumsy, either; he seemed to know his way around being a bear pretty well. Surely he'd done it before—and surely that meant he could turn back.
Maybe he was waiting for a reason. Maybe there was a potion, something they could buy somewhere but not make for themselves in the mountains. Maybe they needed someone who knew something, someone like Amah or Taryn.
But the more times Sinbad had to tell himself that, the feebler it all sounded. Why couldn't Gunnar try? Couldn't he at least tell them how he'd done it, or how to fix it—scratch a picture of the answer in the dirt, or—or anything?
It was—Sinbad missed him. It was like Gunnar had been taken prisoner, except if he was anyone's prisoner he was his own; there was nowhere to go looking for him, no one to threaten or trick or cajole. He was right there, except that he wasn't at all, and it was driving Sinbad mad.
As they were coming down into the foothills, Sinbad tried spending a day forging off ahead. Making sure there were no more tiger-hunters waiting for them, or at least that was what he told everyone; what he really wanted was just to be alone, because then it would make sense that he felt lonely. And he could go fast enough to stay well ahead of Anwar, Rina and her short legs, and not even have to feel bad about it, because Tiger would stay with them and they'd be fine.
But he wasn't quite fast enough to keep in front of Gunnar.
"Oh, will you just take the hint already?" Sinbad burst out, exasperated, after the fourth time Gunnar caught up to him.
He stopped short and, in a rush of hot irritation, swung a half-hearted kick toward Gunnar's knee—or elbow, Sinbad supposed, since it was his front leg—arm? Damn it all—
The blow was off-center, and wouldn't have left a mark anyway, not on a bear Gunnar's size. Gunnar snorted and shifted his weight, stood his ground; and, looking at him, Sinbad had the sudden sick feeling that the kick could've landed much harder and he'd still have stood there and let it. And Sinbad didn't want to kick him, not really—he just wanted Gunnar back, that was all.
"Look, will you just—just change back already, all right? If you can do it, then just do it. What are you waiting for?" Gunnar just blinked at him, silent, and stayed a bear; and Sinbad gritted his teeth and tried not to yell. "I know it wasn't the tiger-hunters, all right, and you've—look at you. You know what you're doing, you've been a bear before. So you can change back somehow or other. I know it. Why won't you? Damn you, just—why won't you do it?"
And oh, he'd started yelling anyway by the end, but it might as well have been a kick: it didn't matter. Gunnar looked away and huffed and, of course, didn't answer. And it was Gunnar, but suddenly it didn't feel like it was. Everything Sinbad might have looked for in his face, the quirk of an eyebrow, the crinkling round the eyes, a twitch of the mouth or a tension in the jaw—every bit of that was gone, invisible, hidden away behind this great big bear's mask. It was, all at once, as though he weren't there at all; as though Sinbad were talking to a stone or a tree, or to some bear who'd never been a man to start with.
Except in that last case the bear probably wouldn't be standing there listening to him.
"You—stupid animal," Sinbad said, and he was sorry he'd said it as soon as he had, but Gunnar took that too, just like the kick—and somehow that only made Sinbad angrier. Gunnar ought to say something, to tell Sinbad that he was the stupid one, that he was a foolish impatient boy and should know better than to say such things to bears. But he wouldn't do it. He was choosing not to, even, staying a thing that couldn't talk. There had always been something in Gunnar that didn't like being himself, that wanted to be somewhere else. And he'd finally figured it out: he finally had a way to look after them and run away from them at the same time.
Sinbad looked away and screwed his eyes shut, dug his knuckles into them until they stopped stinging. He took one deep breath and let it out, and then another. And then he sniffed and shrugged one shoulder and said, "Fine. Fine, do what you want."
He didn't speak to Gunnar again the rest of that day; and Gunnar didn't stay by him, didn't nudge him or snort at him, but he never went very far away, either.
They reached the coast within another two days, and Sinbad wasn't sure he'd ever been quite so glad to see the Providence.
He was expecting some sort of reaction from Cook when they strolled back on board with a bear, but not the one he got—which was nothing. Gunnar made a bit of a racket crossing the gangway from the dock, the planks creaking under his weight, and so Cook was already looking up when he heaved himself over the upper wale. Gunnar landed with a thump on the deck, and shook himself, and Cook blinked at him, sighed, and said, "Trouble, eh?"
"Well, yes, a little bit," Anwar said, lowering himself onto the deck after Gunnar with a wince. "I got stabbed, for instance, and—"
"—the bear is Gunnar," Rina finished, so Anwar wouldn't take another fifty words to do it.
Cook had already looked back down at the dough he was rolling out; at this, he cut a glance sideways toward Gunnar, clapped a little flour off his hands, and said, "Of course he is." His gaze leapt to Tiger, who was next to come over the side, and he eyed her for a long second and then beamed. "And you found them!"
"Yes," Tiger said, with a tiny smile.
"Good, good," Cook said. "Then I suppose we can go."
Tiger nodded and went for the tiller, throwing her pack at Anwar as she passed him at just the right angle so he could catch it with his uninjured arm. And Rina was already popping back up over the side, to untie the mooring ropes—
"What," Sinbad said, "what, that's—that's it?"
Cook raised an eyebrow, all the rest of his attention clearly on his dough.
"Did you know he could do this?" Sinbad demanded. "Can you undo it? There has to be some way to fix this, Cook—"
"Fix what?" Cook said, pressing one side of the dough flat with the heel of his hand, tongue for a moment sticking out of the side of his mouth in concentration.
"He's a bear," Sinbad said.
Cook finally looked up. Sinbad had been hoping for some sympathy or something, but what he actually did was stare at Sinbad for a long moment, eyes narrowed, and then say, "You are saying this wrong."
"You are saying this wrong," Cook repeated, like the only problem was that Sinbad hadn't heard him, and not that he wasn't making any sense. "He is a bear," and Cook lifted his sticky-floury hands and wiggled them, widening his eyes, before he dropped the mockery and shook his head. "What you should be saying is—he is a bear. Or—" Cook tilted his head. "He is a bear?"
"Gunnar is a bear," Cook said. "A bear is Gunnar. So—Gunnar is alive, Gunnar is fine, Gunnar did not get lost in the mountains or eaten by tigers. And now Gunnar is back on the ship with us. You want me to fix this, Sinbad, and I say to you," and Cook leaned over the dough, the floury baking board he'd propped up on a pair of crates, so he could poke Sinbad firmly in the chest and say, very slowly, "fix what?"
He watched Sinbad a moment longer, and then all at once he smiled and went back to his bread, bringing his knuckles down against the dough with a thwack, humming something that probably didn't have words in any language Sinbad knew.
And Sinbad—Sinbad glanced across the deck at where the bear was sitting, gazing down at its own paws. At where Gunnar was sitting; and any other day he'd have been helping Rina cast off the mooring lines, or heading up toward the tiller himself instead of Tiger. But he couldn't do either without hands—or, well, perhaps he could still use the tiller, but he might just as easily break it, with his new weight and strength.
Sinbad had thought to himself in the mountains that he could no longer understand Gunnar's face. But—it hadn't been true, had it? He'd known what it had meant that first day, for Gunnar to sigh or flinch; he'd looked at the way the bear had held itself or moved its head, and thought it looked like Gunnar. The day they'd found Tiger's tigers, he'd seen an answer in nothing but one motion of Gunnar's bear-ear—
And Tiger knew her tigers, didn't she? For all that they couldn't smile at her, they'd been glad to see her. Even Sinbad had been able to tell that much.
In the forest, on his back with Gunnar's paw on his chest and a bear's teeth in his face—he'd seen then who he was looking at, and known he didn't need to be afraid.
Maybe Gunnar was running away, or trying not to be himself; but if he was, then it wasn't working. Not really. And it would be foolish of Sinbad to let Gunnar trick him into thinking it was. Gunnar had never been a talkative man anyway. All the most important things Sinbad had learned about him had been learned without speaking: the way he'd bent his neck for that Khaima sword without flinching, and the look in his eyes when he'd been chained up on Malta. Or—earlier still, that very first day, when he'd seen Sinbad crawl aboard the Providence, stared right at him and then away and hadn't said a word to anyone.
So—if he wanted to be a bear for a while, then maybe that was all right. Maybe Sinbad hadn't lost anything: maybe he was still right there, and had been all along.
They were sailing to Constantinople next, because that was where Nala was waiting for them.
They'd come back to Basra from the Land of the Dead only to find her about to leave going the other direction: she'd wanted to go home, too. Not that there was much left for her, in a kingdom that had bargained her away to Death and all; but she'd wanted to take what remained of her father's belongings, to lay him to rest the way her people did such things, since his body was lost to the sea.
They had taken her as far as they could, to the north coast of her father's land, before heading up toward Kolzum and the Nile. And the Kavkas was so much further away than Nala's home that she had promised to make it up to them: she'd find her own passage to Constantinople, and meet them there when they were finished.
So they were sailing to Constantinople—which meant Sinbad had plenty of time to talk to the bear.
Not always talk, of course; even Sinbad couldn't talk forever, and Gunnar would probably have shoved him over the side if he'd tried. Sinbad watched, too, and in some ways that showed him just as much: Gunnar had carried Rina around on his back now and then when he wasn't a bear, too. He'd snuck food from Cook's galley, and gotten himself scolded for it—and he couldn't quite make his usual apologetic expression like this, but covering his eyes with his paws had about the same effect (Cook was unmoved, but Rina laughed).
Anwar did come up with a whole list of yes-or-no questions about being a bear, and made Gunnar go through them with him—and Gunnar patiently bore it, even though he was a bear and could have clawed through Anwar's parchment instead. And Tiger was as willing as ever to wrestle with him, though she lost a little more often than usual; Gunnar was so large as a bear that it was much harder for her to flip him.
But Sinbad could talk to Gunnar, too, and did. It was different like this: he had to make an effort, had to think of things to say that didn't need much in the way of replies, and when he did say them he found himself paying closer and closer attention to Gunnar. He couldn't just hear what Gunnar thought—he had to look for it, in the thousand other quieter ways Gunnar was telling it to him.
And the things Sinbad talked about began to change, as the days passed. He'd thought that perhaps being a bear was easier for Gunnar in some ways, but he hadn't realised that it was also easier for Sinbad himself. Just—it felt like he could say more things, when Gunnar couldn't argue with him or tell him he was being stupid. Which sounded unfair, but if Gunnar didn't like it, all he had to do was change back.
Besides, being a bear couldn't stop Gunnar from laughing at him.
"I'm serious," Sinbad insisted, as Gunnar snorted again. "I know how it sounds, all right? 'I looked at a mythical guardian of Death itself, and I was back in Basra like always'."
Gunnar sniffed, not quite another laugh but with something amused, relaxed, about the way he held his head; and then he blinked at Sinbad, eyes crinkling and gaze steady, and Sinbad did recognise that expression.
All right, then, go on. Tell me the rest.
"It was different," Sinbad said. "I was—I couldn't remember anything at first. I think—" He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to draw the details of the vision back; it had been strange like dreams were, but it hadn't faded with time the same way. "I think maybe I saw Rina in the crowd, I'm not sure. If I did, I didn't know it was her.
"But I remembered you, when I saw you. And Anwar. I knew you weren't supposed to be there, that we were all meant to be on the Providence instead—but you didn't. You didn't believe me."
And something about this was coming out wrong, because Gunnar was looking away; hunched, making himself small again, like—oh.
"I don't blame you," Sinbad said quickly, "it wasn't—you had no reason to. The guardian was showing me a Basra where I wasn't there. I wasn't real, you'd never met me," and that made Gunnar's head snap round, eyes wide and pale and startled. "Yes," Sinbad said, because that was it, that had been the exact feeling of it: looking at that other Gunnar, with his strange dark leather and his scars, his cold stare, and understanding in a sudden terrible rush how utterly wrong everything must be. How empty and awful—and if there had been a Sinbad in that other world, how he didn't even know it; how he didn't even understand what had been lost to him.
It had almost been a relief to discover that the other Sinbad was dead instead.
"So I wanted to say I was sorry," Sinbad went on, more quietly. "I was being stupid about you and this bear thing. Because I do have an idea what it's like for you to be—to be gone, really gone, where there's no getting you back. And that's not what this is. I just—"
—miss you, but that wasn't right, because he'd just got done saying Gunnar was still there. Not Gunnar himself, then, but—but his voice, maybe, his laugh. The way he smiled, which Sinbad could still picture but that wasn't at all the same as seeing it. His hands, the scarred scraped knuckles, the warmth of them on Sinbad's shoulders—but Sinbad couldn't say that. He couldn't say any of it, the words caught in his throat like fish in a net.
At least Gunnar's eyes were the same, he thought, and then looked away in case it was showing somehow on his face.
"I just wish I knew why you won't undo it," he said, and cleared his throat. "That's all. But it's all right—it's all right. I don't mind so much anymore."
He risked a glance, and Gunnar was looking at him again. It should have been funny, a bear gazing at him so solemnly, but it wasn't; and then Gunnar huffed and swung his head down and into Sinbad's shoulder.
"Oh, sure, I bare my soul and all you want is a scratch behind the ears," Sinbad said, and laughed when Gunnar snorted.
They came into Constantinople on a good strong tide. They'd seen the walls on their way up to the Kavkas—impressive indeed, as Sinbad had heard they would be, and while he'd thought Basra's harbor large and bustling, endlessly busy, Constantinople's defied description.
But this time, they were doing more than just passing by.
As it turned out, the smells were about the same. There was something different about the spices, maybe, drifting up over everything else from the marketplace; but the fish, the boat-tar, the sea—that was just like Basra. The streets, too, were the same in more ways than Sinbad had expected. The wide colonnaded avenues were different, and the shadows of the vast aqueducts—but grubby children with quick fingers dashed about even here in the great city of the Romans. Peddlers shouted and buyers gossiped and six different kinds of food were cooking somewhere; Sinbad almost wanted to lift a money-purse just to prove he still could, except—well.
Even here, it drew eyes to walk down the street with a bear.
The messenger Nala had sent for them handled it pretty well, Sinbad thought—he went wide-eyed, and never quite turned his back on Gunnar all the way, but he didn't run off screaming into the sea, either.
The district where Nala had found lodgings was much quieter than the marketplace, cool and clean, the streets paved level with patterned tiles and trees planted at half the corners just because they looked nice. The villa itself had a courtyard with a garden, a fountain, marble walkways, and just how much money did Nala have, anyway? Sinbad should have given more thought to being a princess as a career choice, even if it came with the risk of getting forcibly betrothed to Death.
Nala, of course, took the whole bear thing very well. Gunnar got strange and hesitant about actually going inside the villa, and Sinbad was arguing with him over it on the garden stairs when she came out—the only thing that gave her away was a hitch in her step. But she could see that Sinbad was talking to the bear and hadn't been swatted away like a fly, and she could obviously guess that there was more to it than met the eye.
And then Anwar noticed her coming. "Nala!" he said warmly, turning the rest of the way toward her; and she sniffed and swished a fold out of her skirt and then looked him up and down.
"I see you haven't had much luck keeping Sinbad out of trouble," she said to him, with a significant look at the bandage and a shake of her head; and then she grinned and hugged him, and Rina too. "And you," she said to Sinbad next, and then frowned, glanced behind him and around the garden and added, "and where is—?" and then her gaze fell back onto the bear and she blinked. "No. Oh, no, Sinbad, tell me that isn't—"
"Oh, yes," Sinbad said, and Gunnar let out a grumpy little moan and put a paw over his eyes.
"Well," Nala said, and crossed her arms, raising an eyebrow at Sinbad. "I'm listening."
"What? Hey—it's not my fault!" Sinbad said indignantly. "Not this time!"
"If it was anybody's fault, it was the tiger-hunters'," Rina allowed, and that made Nala's other eyebrow go up.
So they sat on the steps in the sunshine of Constantinople and told her the story—starting from the beginning, properly, rather than jumping straight to the part with the turning into a bear, and then went on nearly 'til the end. They were diverted a bit by Nala's own journey, which apparently had involved a very bad storm and also some pirates. "But it's good that I went," she was quick to add. "It feels better, to have—to have found a way to lay Father's memory to rest. Even if everything else had gone badly, I would still be proud to have done that." And then she shook her braids back, tilted her chin up, and looked at Tiger. "And you, you succeeded? They were still there?"
"Yes," Tiger said, with a closemouthed little smile.
And Nala reached out and touched her wrist and said, "I am glad."
"Yes, yes," Rina said, "and we've all learned a lot about ourselves. Now where exactly in this palace you've paid for do we keep a bear?"
It was clear there was going to be a lot of talk about whose rooms were where and what they were like, and how much business Nala had left to settle in Constantinople—which was some, apparently, and Tiger had some sort of outstanding contract she wanted to sort out, too, as long as they were there.
Sinbad caught his eyes drifting shut; and that was a shame, that was, in a city as grand and thrilling as Constantinople. He shook himself and then shot a glance at Gunnar, one eyebrow raised and head tilted in invitation—it took Gunnar a moment to notice, but he shook his great furry head to shoo off a fly and then caught sight of Sinbad, and almost right away he heaved himself to his feet, ears up. That was definitely a yes.
"Well, have fun getting all that sorted," Sinbad said loudly, "we're off to take a look around," and he and Gunnar were halfway to the villa gate before Nala even turned around to shout after them that they'd better not get lost.
For all there was that was the same about Constantinople and Basra, that made Sinbad feel comfortable and almost at home, there was also a very great deal that was different. He and Gunnar wandered in the general direction of the vast shining spires and domes of the Hagia Sophia, and Sinbad realised belatedly that they were also drawing closer to the hulking curved shadow of the Hippodrome. There hadn't been chariot races like this in Basra, or at least Sinbad had never had the chance to see any—it made him laugh a little to himself, to see fine men and women with bevies of servants betting the way people with nothing better to do had once bet on Sinbad himself.
Not something he usually liked to remember. But today all that felt particularly far away: he was in Constantinople, across the sea, and all his friends were here and Akbari gone, and Gunnar was ambling along beside with his shoulder brushing Sinbad's elbow every step or so. Today he could think about bad things and still smile.
"The largest you've ever seen, the sweetest you've ever tasted," a man standing over an impressive platter of cherries was saying very loudly.
"I've picked larger with my own two hands," Sinbad told him, just to make it clear he wasn't an easy mark; they looked awfully good, but Sinbad wasn't sure how much the few spare coins he had in his pockets really amounted to.
He was turning away so he could check without the cherry-man noticing him, and that was when he saw them.
Northwomen, too, some of them. They weren't the only ones in this whole market square with pale hair or pale eyes, but they were dressed differently from everyone else who was shopping or selling or walking toward the Hippodrome on a warm afternoon: leather armor everywhere, belts that bore blades and hand-axes. The way they kept their hair, too, and the sharp cool glances they cast across the crowd around them. Warriors, for certain, and if they hadn't come from the north like Gunnar then Sinbad would cut off all his hair.
He went still, looking at them, and Gunnar bumped into him and snorted grumpily. Sinbad could tell the exact moment that Gunnar saw them, too—he went strange and tense all through himself, like he had that first night Sinbad had curled up to him in the mountains, and then pressed his shoulder against Sinbad's hip and leaned hard.
"Oh, you see something interesting in the other direction, do you?" Sinbad murmured, and dragged his eyes away from the northmen to look at Gunnar, who shrugged his far shoulder and shook himself—in acknowledgment—but didn't stop pushing.
He knew Sinbad had seen them, and knew he was being obvious in response, and didn't care. That was how important he felt it was.
"All right, all right," Sinbad said, and dug his fingers into the back of Gunnar's wide furry neck until Gunnar eased up a little bit. He was a very strong bear; Sinbad's thighs had been starting to ache. "We won't go over, they won't see us. I promise, all right? We won't."
And that was a promise he could keep, since Gunnar clearly wasn't about to go over there with him anyway. They wouldn't talk to the northmen.
But that didn't mean Sinbad wouldn't, by himself, if Gunnar happened not to be with him.
"All right," he said again, aloud, and dug into his pocket for the smooth cool weight of coins, ready to spend a little while haggling over cherries.
It turned out bears liked cherries just fine, or at least Gunnar did. They wandered around the plaza a while longer, Sinbad eating a cherry himself and then tossing one to Gunnar, and competed seeing how far the stones of them could be spat across the market without anyone realising who'd spat them.
Not a fair contest, as it turned out; very few people were willing to accuse a bear of such a thing.
They did not get lost at all, and made it back to the villa safely well in time for supper. Nala had, considerately, chosen to have a stew prepared instead of something that required hands to be eaten properly—Gunnar could drink his out of its bowl without much trouble, though he scratched the lacquer a little bit with his claws.
Sinbad didn't put on a show of yawning. He made as though it were creeping up on him instead, clenching his jaw against it and trying to hide it behind his hands, and eventually Rina thumped him in the shoulder. "Oh, go on to bed already if you're so tired!" she said with a laugh.
Anwar snickered beside her, and she rounded on him.
"And you too," she said sternly. "Don't pretend you aren't sick of having to watch out for that shoulder of yours all day."
"Yes, yes, all right," Anwar said, and yawned himself.
All told, it was easy enough for Sinbad to be back out on the street alone before the sun had even finished setting.
Constantinople didn't seem to think much of night, as far as Sinbad could tell—coming back up toward the Hippodrome, the street was lit up almost as well as it had been by daylight, everything overlaid now with the smell of lamp-oil. And of course the northmen weren't where he'd left them, lingering by the fountain; it had been hours. But perhaps some of them had remained close by. Getting drunk somewhere off the plaza after a long day, or still stuck here looking after some of the rich fat fowl who flocked around the Hippodrome—
Someone snapped scoldingly in a language Sinbad didn't know, just as Sinbad eeled past. With room to spare, he hadn't even trod on the man's hem, but the tone was familiar enough. Sinbad ducked his head and bore the dismissive blow to his shoulder as he was shoved sideways, and when he risked glancing up again, he saw her.
Hair almost as red as Rina's, and tall; clear sharp eyes that had caught on Sinbad because he was a disturbance, maybe a problem, and she had a hand close to but not quite on the hilt of one of the knives at her waist. And braids in her hair, the rest falling free. She had to be one of them.
Sinbad had to wait for another pair of people walking to move aside, but then he could get to her—she looked at him with an eyebrow raised when he tried 'Arabī, and of course Norrœnt was beyond him, but she could hardly have managed to find a job in Constantinople without at least a little Koinē—
"Yes, all right," she said, not much more stiffly than Sinbad, when he gave it a try. "I understand you well enough, boy."
"And you're from the north, aren't you? You—"
Her eyes were already narrowing. "You are the boy with the bear," she said. "You were here in the market before, weren't you?"
"Yes! Yes, that was me. Sinbad," he added belatedly.
"Hreidunn," she offered, drawing the knife closest to her hand and flipping it casually.
"And the bear—my friend. He's a northman, but he was changed. Do you know anything about that? Is there any way to undo it?"
Something flashed across her face, a brief sharp tension; she looked down at the knife and flipped it again, once, twice, as if to remind herself it was there and close to hand, ready. "He can undo it on his own," she said, and her tone was bland in a way that didn't match her expression.
"Yes, I thought probably he could, but I'm not sure he will. He's—there's something stopping him," Sinbad tried to explain, reaching for a way to say it that made sense when he didn't even know for certain that he understood the problem himself. "Something he's afraid of, or—" He flailed a hand uselessly. "He didn't want any of you to see him. That's why I thought you might know what to do, or be able to tell me who would."
Hreidunn looked at him for a long moment, silent; and then she said slowly, "Your friend. How much do you know about him, Sinbad? What sort of man is he?"
Sinbad blinked. "I—a good one," he said instantly. "He's told me he wasn't always, that he did things he wishes he hadn't. But that was all before I knew him. He left it behind on purpose, because he didn't like who he was and he wanted to change. That's why he came to Basra. And in the time he's been my friend—
"He's saved people. Saved me, more than once. That's why this happened at all, he was—we were attacked, me and some other friends of his, and he became a bear to save us. He's always doing things like that," Sinbad added, and he couldn't help sounding exasperated about it. "Almost getting his head cut off, or being chained up and nearly executed, or all sorts of things. But if we ever lost him, I don't know what I'd do. If we'd never met him, it's—well, we'd be dead, probably. But if we weren't dead, then we'd be poorer for it. I'd be poorer for it."
As if he weren't poor enough, he almost joked; except in this particular sense, it wasn't true. He wasn't poor at all: he had a ship, he had a crew. He had Rina's sharp tongue and pointy elbows, Anwar's big uncertain eyes and open heart; Nala and her steady clever confidence, Tiger's quiet loyalty, Cook and his cryptic advice and the knowledge it would be there no matter how stupid Sinbad was being—
And yet he could not quite imagine it without Gunnar. How they would all fit together, how they could be happy—how he could be happy, without Gunnar.
He looked up and Hreidunn was watching him, and her face had changed again—softened a little, the tension gone from her jaw and neck, and something knowing in her eyes. "Your friend does sound like a good man," she said quietly, "and perhaps he is after all. And he was not wrong. There are those of us who know a little about his kind, including me. So I will tell you what to do, Sinbad: you find him and look him in the eye, and say his name."
"His—name." Sinbad frowned. She didn't look like she was making fun of him, but that was— "What do you think I've been calling him this whole time? 'Hey, bear'?"
"His full name," Hreidunn clarified, dry. "His own and his father's, in the way it is done by our people."
"Oh. And that's all?" Sinbad said. It seemed awfully simple.
Hreidunn slid her knife back into its sheath and smiled at him, a little wry. "I—believe it will work," she said, "for you."
Sinbad had the sense not to just rush back and do it right then. He was supposed to be sleeping anyway, and for all he knew the rest of them were sleeping by this time too, or close to it. And—
And he had his answer, and so there was no hurry. There was something almost sweet about it, now, knowing he could have Gunnar restored as soon as he chose: he had learned to see Gunnar in the bear, he had, but all the same there was a shiver of gladness in Sinbad to think of Gunnar's actual face back again—of his beard, his quiet smile, the touch of his hands.
He went to sleep with this thought curled up warm in his head, all lightness, and woke from a dream of something pleasant. The details were gone as soon as he opened his eyes, but he knew he had been on the Providence, on the deck in warm sunlight, and he knew Gunnar had been there with him—laughing, he thought, and smiled at the ceiling.
This was the right time. He could catch Gunnar in his room, alone, in case—in case it didn't work, so he wouldn't have raised everybody else's hopes, or in case the magic leapt off Gunnar to somebody else, so Sinbad would be the only one who might get in trouble. Or in case Gunnar came back with no clothes on. Who knew?
He could catch Gunnar in his room, alone, and try it, and see what happened. And if it worked then Gunnar could come down and surprise everyone for breakfast, and Sinbad could explain how he'd done it, and the whole rest of the day would be the better for it.
Gunnar had ended up just down the corridor from Sinbad. The beds in this place were enormous, samite draped everywhere and the frames all dense dark wood—solid enough for Gunnar to climb into without breaking them, even when he was a bear. He'd huddled up with his back to the door; he groaned sleepily when Sinbad prodded him in the shoulder, and then stretched all his limbs out and flexed his paws before rolling over, leisurely.
"Good morning," Sinbad said, and Gunnar blinked at him, acknowledging, and then tilted his head.
Sinbad tried to imagine what Nala would have to say to him if he broke one of these beds doing magic first thing in the morning.
"Come on, you lazy beast—come on, get up—"
Gunnar levered himself up with a mournful sigh and eased himself off the bed, taking no particular care not to bump into Sinbad while he did it.
"Yes, all right, be cross about it if you like," Sinbad said, laughing, "just come on!"
He waited until Gunnar was all done maneuvering and had four feet planted firmly on the floor; but he slid his fingers into Gunnar's short ruff before Gunnar could move for the door.
"No, wait a minute, hang on," Sinbad said.
Gunnar angled a skeptical eye up at him but held still.
"Just—wait a minute," Sinbad murmured again, absent, and he leaned in and settled his hand against Gunnar's huge furry shoulder and said, "Gunnar Halfdanarson."
He hadn't really tried to guess what it would be like—magic was strange and unpredictable, he knew. But it seemed to be about as quick this way as it had been going the other way. (Sinbad hadn't seen it happen then, but it must have been fast, fast and silent, or he and Anwar would have looked.) There was no light or anything, only a sort of wave: something that rippled in the air, that pressed against Sinbad for an instant and made the hair on his arms and the back of his neck all go up, and then—
Then there was no fur under Sinbad's hand anymore, only Gunnar's own shoulder. His own shoulder, his own arm—his own neck and hand and face, caught in the soft open moment just before startlement, his eyes and mouth rounding and a breath barely indrawn.
And he had come back with clothes on after all.
"It worked," Sinbad said, half to himself, and then, "Gunnar," and he found himself beaming so hard his cheeks ached, throwing himself at Gunnar with a laugh.
Gunnar caught him, of course, and for a moment it was exactly right. He was there again. All the warmth and strength of him, still, but in the right size, with only his beard to scrape against Sinbad's cheek; his familiar tattoos, raised just a little under Sinbad's fingers, and that one off to the side slashed through with the same familiar scar; his arms, arms and not legs, he only had two of those now—
"Sinbad," Gunnar said, low. "Sinbad, what have you done?"
"I turned you back!" Sinbad crowed, and laughed again, letting go—he could have lingered, but he had the dim unsteady feeling that it would have been unwise. That in this moment, in his gladness, he might do something he could not take back.
But that didn't matter: he had Gunnar again.
"I turned you back! Wasn't so hard—were you stuck?" Sinbad interrupted himself to ask, because there was half a chance Gunnar would actually answer now. "Was there a reason why you didn't do it earlier? Hreidunn said you could—"
Something flashed across Gunnar's face—Sinbad was so pleased about being able to see it properly, not having to check Gunnar's ears or where he was looking in order to guess, that he almost didn't stop to think what it meant.
But Gunnar had no reason to be frightened.
"—and don't even think about trying it again to get out of explaining yourself," Sinbad added, smug. "Because you see I can just change you back, now that I know how."
And Gunnar didn't smile, didn't laugh—didn't admit that he was caught and ruefully give in. He looked at Sinbad and swallowed, and said nothing; he looked strange, pale and somehow tired, even though Sinbad had only just woken him up.
"I—think I had better lie down a while," he said quietly, and looked away.
"Being a bear is hard work, is it?" Sinbad couldn't resist saying. But he didn't press.
Magic was strange and unpredictable, after all. Maybe Gunnar really did feel ill or drained; maybe Sinbad had been hasty, and morning wasn't actually the right time to turn bears back into people. What did he know?
Not much. He had never been a bear before.
"All right, then," he added. "Rest. I'll tell the others to leave you be."
"Thank you," Gunnar said, without looking up again, and Sinbad stepped out as quietly as he could and closed Gunnar's door behind himself.
Gunnar didn't leave his room. Not to break his fast, and not at midday either, or any time in between. Even as a bear, he'd been more sociable. Sinbad explained, and tried his best to sound like he knew what he was talking about when he said Gunnar had felt a little weak after changing back.
"But he's all right?" Anwar said, making as if to stand up from the couch by the table in the villa's hall.
"Yes, yes, he's fine," Sinbad said, and waved him back down. He was pretty sure it was true—Gunnar hadn't made any hurt sounds when Sinbad had hugged him, after all, and hadn't looked as though he were injured anywhere either. And besides, Gunnar wanted peace and quiet. Sending Anwar to him when Anwar was worried would be the opposite of that. "He's okay. Just tired. You know, trying to get used to being so short again. That's all."
Anwar snorted despite himself, and settled back into place, leaning across the table to arrange some sort of trip to the market with Tiger and Nala.
And Sinbad thought about going with them, but didn't. There wasn't anything he needed there. He had what he wanted, it just—
It just wouldn't come out of its room, and he didn't know why.
He covered his face with his hands and called himself names in his head for a little while, and then went outside to see how far he could climb up the trees in the villa garden.
He tried not to think about this—he tried never to think about this, and had been doing pretty well at it. He'd never named it, always skirted around it in his own head, but there was a reason he was the one who'd struggled so much with Gunnar being a bear, and he knew it. It mattered to him too much, what Gunnar was doing and thinking, how he felt and where he was and why. Sinbad sometimes let himself wander far enough to consider how much he liked to look at Gunnar, how good it made him feel deep in the heart of himself to be—close to Gunnar, to touch him or to make him laugh.
But he always veered away from the cliff's edge, in the end. He always avoided the final step that would spring the trap on him. He wasn't a gutter rat anymore, but he had never quite shaken his street habits: he'd learned better than to want anything too badly or care about getting it too much, better than to let anything matter so deeply that its loss couldn't be borne. Jamil and Amah had been the exceptions that proved the rule; if only he'd done it right the first time, Jamil's death, Amah's curse, would never have been able to cut him so deep.
Rina knew how it worked. Rina understood—and maybe that was why she managed to find Sinbad in the garden.
He was thinking to himself that he wished he could ask Cook for help. He had the sneaking suspicion he was being stupid again somehow, and Cook would roll his eyes and maybe smack Sinbad on the head with a ladle, but would also probably say something useful—
And then he felt someone flick his ankle, and craned his head around between the branches of the tree to look down.
"Hey," Rina said, and scrambled up a little further; even with Sinbad's knee, and then with him, and then a little higher. "Shorty," she added with a sniff, and Sinbad laughed without meaning to.
"So," she said, and crossed her arms over the branch in front of her. "What did you do?"
She fixed him with a sharp steady look. "Gunnar won't come out," she said. "He won't open the door. He wouldn't even when I asked nicely. What did you do? Turn him into a slug? A rat?"
"No!" Sinbad said. "No, he's just himself again. He didn't tell me anything. I thought he'd come out again after a while, but he hasn't."
Rina sighed, loud and frustrated. And maybe she knew the gutter rat rules, Sinbad thought, but that didn't mean she was all that much better at sticking to them than Sinbad was. "Well, we can't just let him get away with it," she said.
"Of course not," Sinbad agreed.
They looked at each other for a moment longer, and then Rina narrowed her eyes. "His room has a window, doesn't it?" she said.
It did. The best path was actually to come down toward it from the villa's roof, he and Rina agreed, after sneaking around the side to take a look at it. She hissed things he already knew at him ("—and don't put your weight on that lattice—" "I have climbed things before, you know!") and then went around to go back inside, to knock on Gunnar's door and yell at him through it, and hopefully keep him from hearing any weird noises until Sinbad had already made it inside.
The roof tiles were clay, but well-set: they didn't rattle or clack against each other under Sinbad's feet. He took a peek over the edge first to make sure, but they were in luck, and Gunnar hadn't shuttered the window up in the time they'd given him.
Sinbad managed to swing down successfully off the edge of the eave, and hung there just long enough to hear Rina's voice, muffled—"You're being an idiot!" she was saying—before he got a foot on the sill and could ease his weight down.
Gunnar was sitting on the bed, facing the door but not looking at it. He had his head in his hands, his shoulders bowed like they bore a great weight that Sinbad just couldn't see.
"An idiot," Rina repeated, sharp, and then she paused briefly and said, "Well?"
Gunnar looked up at that, grimacing, but didn't answer—but that was all right, because she wasn't talking to him.
"Made it," Sinbad confirmed for her, raising his voice so she could hear, and lowered himself down off the windowsill to the floor.
Gunnar's head had snapped round at the sound of Sinbad speaking—he came up off the bed in surprise, eyes wide, and then Sinbad could almost see him realise what had happened, his expression going blank before his brows drew down into a frown. "Sinbad."
"You can't honestly be surprised," Sinbad said. "Did you really think we'd just let you keep sitting in here with the door locked all day?"
And there was a flash of humor in the twitch of Gunnar's mouth, in his wry tone as he shook his head and said, "I had hoped."
"Well, too bad," Sinbad told him baldly. "You're being weird and you won't tell me why. I thought turning you back would help, because then at least you could make words again, but I guess I should have realised it didn't mean you'd use them." He laughed, and not quite because it was funny so much as because he wanted to push at Gunnar, to press him and make him see how foolish this all was. "If I had, maybe I'd just have left you a bear after all. After everything, all this trouble over turning you back, and I know you could have done it yourself, you just didn't—"
"It is—it's not a good thing, Sinbad!" Gunnar said.
Sinbad stopped short and looked at him carefully. His face, his hands, were tense; he wouldn't look Sinbad in the eye, gaze flickering down, sideways, up again—and then all at once he did, and he was clearly making himself, punishing himself with it.
"It's not a good thing," Gunnar said again, more quietly. "To be able to do this thing—to be bjarserkr—"
"What?" Sinbad said. That was a Norrœnt word he'd never heard before; Hreidunn hadn't used it.
"Bjarserkr—bear-shirted," Gunnar said, fumbling for the right 'Arabī, "bear-clothed. In some lands they say we fight wearing the skins of bears we've hunted—and there are men who do that to look like they are bjarserkr, because—" He bit the word off in a way Sinbad recognised, in the way Gunnar bit words off because he didn't want to say the words that came after them.
"Because people are afraid of you," Sinbad said for him, gentle.
Gunnar looked away. "In the Valsgard, we were all bjarserkr. We were born greater, stronger—we reveled in it, men trembled at our feet and begged for their lives and we tore them apart, we laughed." He swallowed twice, fast, and shook his head. "When I left them, I swore I would never become that again. I would leave it all behind, I would be like other men and never—" He broke off again and put his hands to his head, covered his face. "I should have known I could not change what I am," he murmured into his palms.
And that was so silly Sinbad couldn't stand it. "You have changed what you are, Gunnar! You aren't like that anymore, you're not Valsgard, you're not any of it. You're my friend who's sometimes a bear—there's nothing bad about that. I told you I wasn't afraid of you—"
"Yes," Gunnar said, sounding suddenly weary. "And that is because you don't understand."
"You don't understand anything, Sinbad," Gunnar repeated, looking away. "You think I wanted you away from my countrymen in the market just because they knew the answer; but I didn't. I didn't want them to know me for myself. That was all. What you did—" He stopped, and ran his hands over his face again, jaw working, all with his gaze still carefully away from Sinbad. "The rest of the crew—they are my friends, they care about me, but they could not have done it," and then, at last, his eyes snapped up: Sinbad could not name the look in them, angry and wary and wistful all at once. "You could not have done it either, unless—"
Sinbad swallowed, a hot anxious feeling squirming in his belly—but Gunnar didn't have to know that. So he stood his ground and tilted his chin up and said, "Unless what?"
"Unless you thought you were in love with me," Gunnar said, very low.
Sinbad's face went hot and then cold, an awful trapped feeling clawing through him—and that right there was why he'd always refused to name the thing himself. He could feel the impulse to laugh it off, to tell Gunnar how mistaken he must be; except he wasn't mistaken. He was the one who was a bear sometimes. He knew the rules that governed bear-shape, better than Sinbad possibly could.
I believe it will work, Hreidunn had said, for you—for you, and why hadn't he asked her why she'd said it like that?
But he hadn't asked. He hadn't asked, and he'd given himself away without even knowing he was doing it—the moment he had said Gunnar's name and Gunnar had felt himself change, he would have realised it.
Except—Sinbad frowned. There was still an unsteady churning in the heart of him, a desire to leap back out the window and never talk about this again, but—
"Surely that isn't how it works," he heard himself say.
"The magic," Sinbad said, and made himself look Gunnar in the face. "It isn't—it's not that I think I'm in love with you."
And Gunnar, astoundingly, rocked back half a step and looked away, pink dusting itself hotly across his cheeks.
"It's that I am. I'm not a child," Sinbad added stubbornly, "I know my own mind," because—because he was panicking inside for a reason, not because he was stupid or didn't know what was going on. He was panicking inside because it was real, this thing he had about Gunnar—because it was real and he knew it, and that was what was frightening about it. Gunnar wasn't going to talk him into thinking he was scared of shadows, of something that didn't matter or wasn't there.
"No," Gunnar said, shaking his head, balling his hands up into fists. "No, you do not understand. You've never understood," but he was wrong, he was wrong.
"I'm not afraid of you," Sinbad said, "and I never was. Whether you're a bear or not—I never have been. And it's not because I don't understand, or because I don't know you well enough. It's because I do."
"I was there when the Khaima came for you," Sinbad said quietly. "I was the only one who was, Gunnar," and Gunnar grimaced like it pained him and looked away, but didn't argue. "I heard what they said—"
"The crimes I have committed," Gunnar summarised, "the blood on my hands—"
"—and they asked you to join them!" Sinbad said, throwing up his hands. "If anybody knows the worst of you, isn't it them? Even they know you're different now. I know—I know that doesn't mean it doesn't trouble you, still. I know you feel the shadow of it on you sometimes. And if that's why—if you didn't want to change because you didn't want to have to decide whether or not to explain, or—"
"I wanted you to know all of it," Gunnar murmured, and then grimaced again and shook his head. "And—didn't," he admitted. "You didn't know what it meant, and could not hold it against me. And to just change back, to just hide it away again like it was nothing—" He sighed, with an edge of frustration in it, and scrubbed a hand roughly through his hair. "I know it was foolish, but it was like—as long as I stayed like that, it wasn't my fault you didn't know. I had become a bear in front of you, and any northman could have told you what I was; I had confessed without confessing, without having to say it. And it was—"
He paused, and shook his head again.
"It was good to be a bear," he admitted. "I had not done it in a long time."
"Well," Sinbad said, dragging together all the daring he had left in him, "you can do it again if you like. You can do it whenever you please—and if you're being stupid about it like you were this time, then I'll just change you back." He took a deep breath, and just so Gunnar couldn't get it wrong again, added, "I'll—I'll always be able to change you back, I think."
"Sinbad," Gunnar said, very softly, and nothing else.
He didn't look like he minded hearing it, Sinbad thought, with a stirring of hope. His eyes were wide, and all the rest of his face still and blank and open. He'd—somewhere during all that, he'd crossed part of the space between them, and maybe so had Sinbad, and they weren't standing all that far from each other anymore. He wet his lips, and then a look crossed over him that was almost concentration, intent and purposeful. He reached out toward Sinbad, and then—
He'd spread his hand; he closed it, clenching it tight, and said, "Sinbad," again, and the tone he used to say it didn't mean anything good. "Sinbad, you shouldn't—"
"Oh, as if that's ever worked on me," Sinbad said, and stepped in, and caught Gunnar's hand for himself. He waited long enough to be sure that Gunnar was wary but wasn't trying to pull his hand away, not really; and then he pulled it up and set it on his shoulder, his own hand layered over it. "I do things I shouldn't all the time," he added, and brought his free hand up to Gunnar's jaw.
And just when he was starting to think he'd have to do it all himself, Gunnar's hand relaxed against his shoulder. "Oh, Sinbad," Gunnar murmured, rueful, half chastisement, and drew him in the rest of the way to kiss him.
Gunnar had not let himself imagine what it might be like—to kiss Sinbad, to have Sinbad whole and alive and eager beneath his hands, within the circle of his arms. To imagine was to wish, and to wish was to ask; and Gunnar could not have asked the universe to give him such a thing.
But here it was anyway.
He had always thought it almost a joke, the things he had heard sometimes: a name, which even bjarserkr had, that commonest of things; and love, elusive enough even when you had not slaughtered men, even when you were not a bear, even when the weight of your guilt was not more than enough to drown you.
But Sinbad had said his name, his name, and Gunnar had been changed. Once, in joining this crew and becoming part of the Providence. And now again, when he had not had the strength or will to do it himself.
He eased away after a little while, in case Sinbad might have changed his mind. But Sinbad only looked up at him, dark-eyed and red-mouthed, and smiled.
"See?" Sinbad said. "Doing things I shouldn't has worked out well for me, I think."
"Ah, that is only because you are so stupid it is almost a kind of bravery," Gunnar told him, very soberly. "The gods become confused, and no longer know which is which, and decide they had better reward you just in case."
"Call it what you like," Sinbad said, laughing, and then tugged him down and kissed him again.