Dawn was coming to the canyon. The sun hadn't risen yet, but David liked to be awake before the rest of the city. He liked the slap of the wind in his face laden with the bitter smell of plains grass. He liked the way colour crept into the stone as the sun rose, like something ancient and immense coming back to life. In the middle distance, he could hear Skybax starting to stir: clacking bills and soft trilling. Further away, the storm that had followed him in from Waterfall City late last night was finally moving off. He cradled a mug of tea from the brazier in his quarters, basking in the stillness.
He liked the weight of the quiet bearing down on him. He liked to imagine this was what the world had been like billions of years ago.
And today, he liked imagining he was alone in it—no people, no troubles. No dad, no Karl, no Marion—
He drew in a heavy breath through his nose, controlling it the way Oonu had taught them. One: sand beneath his feet, worn powdery by the wind and still cool from night. Two: the wind on his cheeks, chilly and strong this morning, smelling of Skybax guano and dampness from the river far below. The river...
He moved on. Three: footsteps scuffing stone behind him.
Romana, a blanket wrapped like a palisade to her chin, stopped a few feet away. “You’re back early.” She looked gaunt, gouged hollow on the inside by bad dreams as David was. “I thought the council gave you a full month to settle your father.”
“I missed the City.”
She looked like she knew he was lying but didn’t call him on it. He didn’t know if he was grateful or disappointed. Instead of speaking, she moved up beside him.
David still couldn’t bring himself to stand at the canyon’s lip but he was closer than he had been months ago, when Skybax training began. Romana seemed more at ease at the brink than him but he expected that. Her fringed blanket dimpled at her throat where she clutched it as if afraid it would be torn away. There were deep hollows under her eyes in the half-light.
“I think the City missed you,” she rasped. “You should hear the stories the others tell about your escapades during the Sunstone Crisis.”
“I can imagine.”
“No, I don’t think you can,” she said with a thin chuckle. The wind tore the sound apart. She held the blanket more tightly.
David had heard from his roommate that Romana had been troubled since the Crisis. That she spent late nights in the library, and later ones in her room with the lamp burning all night. That she cried in her sleep.
Last night David had heard her himself, through the wall: a sob, then a choked off scream. The silence that followed. He’d contemplated getting up and going to her, sitting up with her as she had with him in the first weeks of training. Her roommate - ground crew, not a cadet - had died in the chaos. David didn’t know if she was close with any of the other First Years.
But if he went, he’d have to explain why he was awake too. And David, though he was many things, was not ready to talk about the fact that every time he closed his eyes, he saw himself swimming through dark waters that had no surface, his lungs burning, legs weighted down by the dead.
Those were his demons. Only Romana knew the names of hers. Neither was ready to share.
“Did something happen?” Romana murmured. David looked sideways at her. “You’re making that face. That one like a tyrannosaur’s cloaca.”
David couldn’t even laugh. ‘Something’. A perfect afternoon in Waterfall City—the smells of honeysuckle and roasting nuts on the breeze, the flowers from a festival still strewn on the streets, a pipe band practicing the open court of the music hall, the cool shadow of Zippeau’s house after the heat of the sun. The door of the Scotts’ old room slightly ajar. Breathy sounds. Karl and Marion’s hands interlaced on the coverlet.
'Something'. David had asked Marion to meet him at Zippeau’s so they could take a walk along the canals and he could apologise for acting like an ass the preceding weeks. His father and Karl had gone upriver fishing.
Karl must have forgotten something. Marion must have arrived early. They must have talked. Marion must have said ‘yes’.
David felt his face twisting. He drew in another deep breath. That didn’t help. Bypassing Oonu’s technique, he went back further: five things he could see. Four he could hear. Three he could smell. Just like the shrink taught him when he was a kid with anxiety.
“No. Nothing happened.”
Romana gazed him unmoving behind her blanket palisade, a deep immeasurable something in her eyes that David couldn’t name. It wasn’t patience, like Rosemary waiting for him to confess; or disappointment, like Oonu when David refused to jump.
I know your secret, her eyes said.
And I know yours, thought David. “Nothing I won’t get over.”
Romana turned her gaze back to the horizon where red was seeping up a like watercolour. He wondered if she was thinking about getting over things. How long it might take. If it would happen at all.
Resettling the blanket like a Skybax adjusting its wings, she seemed suddenly smaller than usual. The blanket fringe fluttered against her cheek. At the level of her elbow, a tear had been mended in childish, unequal stitches in cheerful yellow thread. The urge to put a hand on her shoulder, to offer some kind of physical support, gripped him powerfully.
A dozen things flashed through his head to say:
I know how you feel.
It gets better.
I see them too.
Do you want to talk about it.
But there were things they didn’t talk about. Even after the Crisis, and all the death and despair. “Want to go for a lap around Cleon’s Mesa?” he said instead.
Before she answered, a pteranodon screeched in the depths of the canyon and took flight.
Romana tracked it grimly, mouth drawn thin and the corners of her eyes creased. “Let’s go for a run instead.”