That first night, they closed the door on Armada, and then they were just two. Shekel began to explore their two little rooms with youthful vigor, and Tanner collapsed onto a chair. The shock of freedom had sapped him as completely as imprisonment had ever done. “It’ll all still be here tomorrow, lad,” he said, and he tried to believe it.
It was Shekel who opened the bundle they’d been given and divided fish cakes between them. Afterwards he showed Tanner the bunk room. “I’ll take the bottom, if it’s all the same to you,” Tanner said. He stripped down to his skivvies; he accidentally brushed his tentacles and winced.
“They hurt you?” Shekel asked, peering. What he found so interesting about Tanner’s Remaking, Tanner couldn’t begin to guess.
“I’ll be all right. Find some stuff to put on ‘em,” Tanner said vaguely – what sort of stuff did anyone make for misplaced kraken bits sewn to a man’s chest? “That’ll help.”
Sleep came over him quick and easy. The last thing he heard was the squeak of the bunk overhead.
Tanner met with the foreman of Armada’s engineers. She asked after Tanner’s prior experience like he didn’t have a fucking thing growing out of his chest. “How d’you feel about diving?” she asked. “About going under?”
“Suits me,” Tanner said. He’d have been hard pressed to think of something that didn’t suit him, if it earned him wages like any whole man.
That first dip in the sea, he nearly died of cold, or felt like it, the breath shocked from his lungs.
Halfway home, he realized what else the sea had done: stopped his tentacles from itching. He hadn’t even noticed the relief of it until it was back, the sore, constant prickle of unhealed wounds.
“Found you something,” Shekel said. He put the heavy, dented tin on the table. Tanner opened it, sniffed at the sharp pungeance within. It was greasy between his fingers. “For your—you know.” Shekel gestured.
Tanner took a fingertip of it and rubbed it into a tentacle. The stuff burned like ice, but after it burned it numbed. Tanner went back to the tin for more.
“Okay?” Shekel asked, hovering, anxious.
“It’s good.” As Tanner continued to rub, it amazed him how good it was. Like being back in the sea again. “It’s very kind of you, lad.”
“Well.” Shekel shrugged.
Tanner didn’t embarrass him with further gratitude. Under Shekel’s solemn eye, Tanner kept rubbing until his tentacles shone and that blessed numbness crept everywhere.
The first time one of the tentacles twitched in the water, the sensation was so alien Tanner wasn’t certain that was even what it was. It twitched again, and he stared at it, the thing that cascaded from his chest like sewage from a pipe.
He tried to make it move again, by will, and only managed to wiggle his ear a little.
He was rubbing salve into the slow-healing flesh one late evening when the whole tentacle jerked between his hands.
“Fucking shit,” Shekel said from his stool, his eyes round like worthless New Crobuzon coinage.
“It does that now, sometimes,” Tanner said blandly.
“Does it hurt?” Shekel peered closer.
“I told you they’re getting better, didn’t I? Thanks to you and this stuff,” he added, aiming to fluster Shekel into silence.
Shekel didn’t even pause. “What does it feel like?”
“Like a muscle twitching somewhere I haven’t got,” Tanner snapped. Immediately he was sorry; Shekel’s mouth twisted, sulky and defiant. He shoved to his feet and angled his body towards the door. “Now don’t go, lad,” Tanner said. “Don’t go off like that. I didn’t mean anything by it.” He sighed. “I just don’t much care to talk about them, is all. Because of—of what I am.” He felt like he’d stripped himself bare and climbed up on that table again, like he’d even strapped himself to it, with Shekel’s searching gaze the knife in the chirurgeon’s hand.
Shekel slumped onto the stool again. “I didn’t mean nothing, either.” It was a sulky apology, spoken out from under the fringe of his hair, but an apology nonetheless.
“I know you didn’t, lad.”
He caught his hand on the jag of a fresh-broken mast. His blood seeped into the sea, a murky stain. He floundered to the surface, and a fellow crewman bandaged him and sent him home.
Shekel found him at the foredeck railing, bored. Shekel’d bought hard cakes shot through with raisins and salty kelp chews, and they ate them there, watching the close, crowded horizon of the city.. Shekel was afire with new words he’d read that day, that he’d written down and shown to ‘Miss Coldarse.’ Tanner spun a tale about his hand, grinning too broadly to give Shekel any notion of believing him.
The dying light burnished everything gold. Some delicate, sweet pungeance wafted from the next boat over, a tea-garden whose masts and rigging were trellises now, overgrown with blossoms. It was pretty, Tanner’s adopted home. He’d have loved it even if looked and smelled like the inside of a shithouse, but still: it was pretty.
The dry of the biscuits and the salt of the chews finally sent them below for drink. After, Tanner got out his tin of salve – a new one, bought on a free man’s wages when he’d finished the old. He fumbled to unscrew the lid with his off hand.
“I can—” said Shekel, nearby as he always was when Tanner did this. He reached for the tin, twisted it open. Paused. “Do you—I can. If you want.” He met Tanner’s gaze as if on a dare, held it like his honor was it stake.
“All right then, lad.”
Shekel pulled the stool over. He dipped his fingers into the healing grease and lifted his fingertips to within a hair of Tanner’s left tentacle. He breathed in. Breathed out. Pressed his fingers to Tanner’s filmy fleshy kraken skin. He rubbed a circle in it and paused again. “Okay?”
“It’s fine. Go on, then, if you’re going to.”
Like a gear unsticking, Shekel came to life. He massaged the ointment in, all up and down the top side of first one tentacle, then the other. Then he came back to the fleshy, fragile underside and began working it in each pair of suckes. It was such a tedious process that Tanner rarely bothered, but Shekel went about it with the same fierce concentration, his ragged hair falling over his eyes.
Then a careful, questing finger stroked the wrong way, and a shiver ran all through Tanner. A red-blooded flush of shame followed it. He twisted abruptly away, fast enough for that the tentacle caught roughly on Shekel’s fingernail. He grunted at the pain.
“Did I hurt you?” Shekel asked, stricken.
Tanner shielded his face. “‘Tain’t that. You’ve done enough for now. Why don’t you bring over that book you were reading me yesterday?” It was a sure distraction, and he waited for Shekel to go scrambling for the book while Tanner composed himself again.
Only Shekel didn’t. “Didn’t you like it?” he asked, a strange twist to his tone that Tanner didn’t recognize.
Tanner shook his head, still shy of meeting Shekel’s eyes. “I’m not ungrateful. I just ran out of patience, all of a sudden.”
The stool scraped the floor as Shekel climbed off it. He came around to face Tanner, and he stood there, straight, hands hanging loose, and said roughly, “I liked it.”
Tanner looked up. Shekel was red, too, with determination and something else that slid into a lock in Tanner’s mind and kicked all the tumblers loose. The door swung open without so much as a nudge, and now Tanner could see it: the gawky, adolescent desire shining out from Shekel’s eyes. “Lad—” He stopped, helpless to continue.
Shekel’s face shuttered. “Never mind. I’m meeting some mates. I’ll be back—later, I reckon.”
But Shekel was already out the door, so bent on escape he failed to latch it properly. Tanner watched it for a while, swinging gently in the evening breeze and banging occasionally against the frame, before he finally got up and closed it.
There was nothing to be surprised about, he told himself. No surprise that the fucking tentacles would sink their roots even deeper in than he realized, all the way into his nuts and his cock; nor that Shekel would look at Tanner through the haze of youth’s godsawful lust and see something he thought he wanted.
And godspit, Tanner wanted it, too. That was the worst, the why of the shame settling like lead in his gut. And who’d be surprised at that, either? Imprisoned, Remade, free now and alone but for his work mates and for Shekel, who liked him – simply and easily, Tanner had thought, though the view was cloudier now. Who’d be surprised at an old invert wanting something like desire turned his way again, after all that?
And yet Tanner was surprised. He was mortified by his own pathetic wants; he was shamed again as he hadn’t been since the cactacae woman cut through his shackles. He lay on his bed, sick with it.
The squeak of the door woke Tanner from his fitful dozing. The floorboards creaked. Shekel’s progress stopped at the foot of Tanner’s bunk. After a moment came the whisper: “You awake, Tanner?”
The moment of Tanner’s indecision stretched out long past when Shekel should have given up, but still he stood there in the dark, waiting. Finally Tanner croaked, “I’m awake.”
This time the pause was Shekel’s. Low and sullen and young, he said, “I wasn’t asking you to be the queer.”
This declaration was so unexpected that it shocked a laugh from Tanner. Another followed. Rigid offense emanated from beyond the bunk. Finally Tanner composed himself to say, “Too late for that, lad. I’ve been queering since before you were born.”
Brief, shocked silence. “Then—” Shekel stopped.
Tanner could guess what he wasn’t saying. “I’m a long sight older than you. Wouldn’t be fitting.”
“Bet we’d fit all right,” Shekel muttered.
Another laugh threatened Tanner. He choked it down, and it didn’t taste like sick, the way everything else had the past few hours. He found he couldn’t imagine continuing this conversation in the dark. “Get a light, would you?”
After a moment’s pause, Shekel’s bare-footed steps crossed the floor. A match flared, and the wick of the oil lamp caught. Its warm glow suffused the room, closing out the dark and closing Tanner and Shekel in far more completely than walls alone could do. Tanner cast his legs over the side of the bunk, pulled his blanket over his lap, and sat there, blinking and crusty-eyed, while Shekel adjusted the flame.
Then Shekel turned and shifted uncomfortably in place until Tanner nodded towards the foot of the bed. Settled onto it, head ducked to avoid the frame of the bunk above, Shekel said softly, “I didn’t mean nothing by it. Just wanted, is all.”
Tanner shook his head. “Nothing here worth wanting, lad. Old, dried-out, got my crimes sewn right into my chest here, you see?”
“Like I ain’t run against the law my whole life. Few more months in the city, this coulda been me.” There was something like wonder in Shekel’s tone as he spoke those last words, some realization coming clear. He reached across the bed, slowly, like Tanner was some feral stray, and he stroked a finger along the length of the nearest tentacle.
“Missed a spot,” Shekel said. He traced over the top of a half-healed sore, and Tanner couldn’t help but flinch at the friction. “I could finish, if you wanted.” He met Tanner’s gaze openly, with unexpected patience.
In the private world lit by the oil lamp, under that frank gaze, Tanner’s resolve crumbled. “All right,” he said, wondering if this would sicken him later, too, and not managing to care. He waited while Shekel went for the tin and settled on the bunk again, closer to Tanner this time. Shekel leaned over Tanner, and Tanner held himself very, very still.
Shekel’s young, able fingers worked the grease carefully into the skin until it shone. He didn’t handle Tanner any differently this time, yet his squint of concentration seemed to search all Tanner’s cracks and crannies – and not just those in his skin. Tanner found himself flushing again.
Still – “Shouldn’t need to be putting your hands on abominations like those.”
Shekel looked up. “I like them,” he said simply.
The words weren’t new, yet they shocked Tanner to the heart like a chirurgeon’s prod. “You’re a fetishist, then,” he tried to joke.
“Dream of you putting ‘em in me.” Shekel didn’t miss a single careful stroke. Tanner’s breath stuttered. “One up my arse, one in my mouth, maybe.”
“I don’t think they’re up to that, lad,” Tanner croaked.
“Not yet. But they’re getting stronger, ain’t they?” Shekel rolled the very tip of the tentacle over his finger, and it twitched. Tanner felt the tremor all the way up into his chest. “You said you held onto a rope with one the other day.”
“Not quite the same thing.” And that was in the water – Tanner doubted they’d ever have that kind of strength in open air.
Shekel grunted as he went back to the tin and greased his fingers again. He might as well have been stroking Tanner’s cock now, the way his words and his fingers and the pleasant prickle of the salve was working. Tanner gripped the edge of the bunk with both hands and struggled to stay still.
Head still bent over Tanner, Shekel said, “I’d like you putting one on my cock.”
A sick jolt of lust shuddered through Tanner. He didn’t even have a fetish. “All right.”
Shekel lifted his gaze sharply, as though he thought Tanner were jesting. His eyes widened over whatever it was he saw in Tanner’s face. He scrambled up off the bed. He stripped off his shirt, his threadbare trousers, and he stood there in front of Tanner, bare and bright-eyed and gawky.
“Come on, then,” Tanner said, seeing that it was up to him or no one. He shifted to give Shekel room next to him, and the blanket fell away from Tanner’s lap, revealing his cock, red and already bobbing.
Shekel caught sight of it and laughed. There was joy in the sound that lifted Tanner somehow, as though he were a boat and Shekel’s laughter was the tide. Then he saw Shekel’s cock was standing up and looking just as ready, and Tanner laughed, too. How long had it been since he could look at a nice cock openly, without fear or threat? How long since his mouth had watered for one this way?
But that wasn’t the game tonight. “You’d have these bits of sea on you, would you?” He lifted one, and the salve tingled on his fingers. He laid it across Shekel’s lap, over the hot flushed tip of his cock. Shekel gasped sharper than Tanner expected.
“Fucking healer’s shit,” Shekel said, hanging his head back from his shoulders. “Stings.”
“Oh, Jabber fuck—” Appalled, Tanner made to pull the tentacle away.
Shekel gripped Tanner’s wrist. He grinned fiercely. “I like it,” he said.
That same buoyant laughter threatened to take Tanner over again. Instead of letting it, he slid his undamanged hand inside Shekel’s thigh and palmed the head of his cock. Shekel’s gasp was higher this time, breathier, and Tanner’s breath shortened to match. He hummed in Shekel’s ear. “Never had it done by someone knew what they were doing, did you?”
Touching another man was as good as touching yourself, Tanner’d always thought. Shekel’s little choked grunts, the thrusts into Tanner’s hand that he couldn’t keep still – they did nothing to dissuade Tanner of the notion. Next time he’d have Shekel in his mouth, he’d be sucking on the bitter-sea damp that was currently wetting his palm. His cock fattened even more over the thought of it. “Almost there?” he whispered.
That question was all it took for Shekel to find release. He shot hot and thick over Tanner’s hand and the underside of his tentacle.
Shekel slumped over his lap, heaving each breath. Tanner disentangled his hand and then his tentacle, too. He palmed his dick.
Shekel grunted. His hand fell between Tanner’s thighs. “My turn,” he said, though his words were slow and sluggish.
“Next time,” Tanner said, and was shocked at himself. What had come over him that he’d make such a promise? Yet he didn’t regret it.
Shekel still wanted a hand in the proceedings, though, and so Tanner worked himself around the obstacle of Shekel’s fingers, which brushed Tanner’s cock briefly and unexpectedly every so often. Tanner shivered every time.
When he came, it was more vigorously than he had by his own hand in years.
“Huh,” Shekel grunted. Tanner looked up to find him grinning smugly, though his eyes were nearly shut. “Told you.”
“That you did, lad,” Tanner said. The last word dropped from his mouth with a different weight now, the ring of a different fondness than Tanner had ever felt before. That’d be a worry for waking hours, he thought.
Exhaustion dragged on him suddenly, as surely as a cast anchor. The unnatural hour, the way he and Shekel had just spent it, the hours of sick horror Tanner had spent before – for reasons he could not just now remember – they all combined to weigh on him. He stumbled over to the table and doused the lamp. “Shove over,” he said, pushing and prodding at Shekel until the boy rolled against the wall, grumbling.
There wasn’t room for two. Tanner stretched out next to Shekel anyway.
As the city chattered and creaked and groaned awake, Tanner woke, too. It took him a moment to recognize the heat along his back as Shekel. Tanner lay there a while longer, remembering the night before and waiting for that shame to come rolling back over him. It didn’t. All he felt was something poking him left of his spine – Shekel’s elbow, maybe.
Tanner extracted himself from his lone blanket. He washed himself and shaved, trying to keep his clatter quiet. He looked his hand over and tied a bandage tight over it. When he was dressed and ready for another day, he found himself before his bunk again. He took in Shekel’s scrawny length, his peaceful face, and was undecided, but finally he said aloud, “Shekel, lad.”
Shekel stirred a little and fell still.
This time he rolled over to peer up at Tanner, eyes slits. It took a moment for them to widen, for Shekel to look around at himself in Tanner’s bunk and back up again. “Hey,” he said, careful.
Tanner didn’t know how to ask. Didn’t even know what, exactly, he wanted to know. Instead he said, “I’m off to see the foreman. See if she has work for me today that ain’t diving.” He waggled the fingers of his injured hand.
Shekel nodded. They looked at each other while several voices called just outside their window. “Tonight,” Shekel began. “Tonight, I could fix you up again, if you want.”
As simple as that, Tanner’s unformed question was answered. “Aye, lad. That’d be kind.”
An impish hint of grin appeared at this phrasing, and Tanner bit his lip to keep from returning it. Solemnity was half the joke, after all. Instead he flicked Shekel a salute and headed for the door. By the time he reached it and turned for one last glance, Shekel’s eyes were already closed again.