You've tended this bath before, a time or two, but never had the chance to use it. It's enormous—you should know! You've carried enough pails of fresh water up here, up from the creaking groaning evaporator in the Bitch's belly—that, and raked the coals in the iron pan below it, glowing with the gentle heat that keeps the water warm.

It's always seemed such an extravagance—so out of your captain's character, from what you've come to know of her, that she should find so worthy such an extravagance as this, to have had her cabin wall built out into a little room, just forward of her private head, for this purpose and no other. But as Lu steadies you so you can swing one long leg over the side and ease yourself wincing down into the water, hissing out a breath with the effort of movement as abused muscles complain afresh—

—ah, now you understand. The simple bliss of it—the warmth of it, as if reaching into your very limbs and beginning to carry away the pains of all your efforts along with the mess that mats your fur—it's such a gentle comfort, and such a delightful one, that you can hardly help but understand why your captain finds it worth such effort to maintain.

Lu sees it on your face, and her smile says she knows exactly what she's seeing—not that that should be difficult; insightful as she has a way of being, the simple joy of it is there for anyone to see in your own broad smile as you close your eyes and let out a long and deeply heartfelt sigh.

"Better, that," Lu says, her contralto full now of her smile. "Let it soak in a little, and then we'll see to the mess you've made of yourself tonight." You hear soft noises, little clinks and rustles—clothing noises? Is she—you could open your eyes and see if she's undressing to join you in the bath, but it seems such an effort—so much easier simply to reach out in the mind-sense, gently questing toward the other woman to learn what you may of her intentions—

—and an instant of surprise, as you find there is simply nothing there—how could you have missed that before? Out on deck you sensed so much from everyone and how could you have failed to notice that you sensed nothing from Lu? As if she wasn't even there—as if she didn't exist somehow, or was utterly vacant of mind—

No effort at all to open your eyes, now—but imperative, because you are seized with the sudden certainty that Lu is not there, was never there at all, that somehow you've only imagined her to exist—how can she be otherwise, if you cannot sense her?—

—and impossible though it be, there she nonetheless stands, looking real as ever—real, and in her fur quite lovely, her fox colors well complimenting her shapely curves. Real, and lovely, and still smiling down at you where you lay in the warm bath—but has something in her smile become different, somehow? Warmer still, and—knowing?—

I wondered how long you'd take to notice

Unmistakably Lu's voice, laced with the dry wit you've heard so often from her before. But you are not hearing it now. Your ears are certainly still working—the partition of the little room does nothing to isolate it from the sounds of Hua's and Quen's coupling in the main cabin outside, and delightful sounds they are at that—but had Lu formed speech, you'd have seen her do so.

No—she is thinking at you. As the deep thing has done, and as you have done, in sharing one another's minds—she is shaping thoughts to you. But hers have the shapes of words. And as you bend all your tired attention upon her—your own, and that of the deep thing, focused through you and sharing your senses and its own astonishment rising alongside and within and around your own—she shapes more words to you.

Oh yes, Emeline, I'm very real! Leaning over as she steps into the tub, she dips a paw into the water and pokes you between your breasts with the blunt-tipped claw of one finger. Felt that, didn't you? Yes, I'm real as you are. Exactly as real as you are. Only that I keep my thoughts quiet—a simple trick, and one you'll learn in time, if you should want to

She settles into the bath with a long deep sigh of her own, enjoying the warmth of it for a moment before she half rises again to sit on her heels, the better to free her hands to lift your left foot and begin to clean it—as much a massage as simply bathing you, strong fingers pressing, squeezing, rubbing—easing the soreness in your muscles as they work the mats out of your fur.

How are you...? You can't even imagine what question to ask first—all you can manage is a wordless naked plea, a thought that captures the very soul of incomprehension and the need to have it ameliorated—the need to understand. That, and the beginnings of astonishment—surely it's not possible that she is like you, that she's known the same communion you have!—

—she doesn't seem a monster at all—

No, dear Emeline. Not a monster. But I am like you. Or I have been, anyway

No sign of it on her, as her fingers work their way up to your calf, the water beginning to sheen as the slime rises free of your fur. But, in that thought—around its edges—a sense of such loss. Such endless loneliness—only around the edges of that thought, and you know that to feel the full weight of it would simply break your heart, and that Lu knows that too and would not abuse you so. But even to feel the edge of it is enough to start fresh tears from your eyes, as your heart can't help but go out to her, and she raises her eyes from her work and for a moment meets yours, and gives you such a sad smile as you have never seen before.

I'm sorry, comes her thought, as she turns her gaze once more to your leg, without effort finding the places in the strong muscle of your calf that are just getting ready to tighten into painful knots—finding them, and gentling them down, and with firm pressure easing them into relaxation. I did not mean to share that with you. Only seeing you together with your beast, just now—well. It will look after you—you know that. But it needs you to look after it, as well. There are those who mean it ill, it and all its kin

And all this last little while, in and with your mind, you feel the deep thing's own, intently focused on Lu—through you you feel it reaching out to her, trying to touch her mind as it touches your own, and you add your own intent and focus to its effort—the woman is so alone, and your heart goes out to her, and your mind with it, to gather her into the embrace of your communion and soothe her hurts away—

—and suddenly from Lu a thought that has not the shapes of words, nothing like them at all—something so complex and subtle and utterly incomprehensible to you that you catch only the bare edges of it, but you sense as well the deep thing understands—understands perfectly—and this, you know, must be a thought of the sort that deep things share with one another, in their own native idiom. You can't begin to understand it, but the deep thing does, and in the way its mind relents to any more seek hers, you can grasp aught of its meaning.

No, dear thing—dear things —I would not, though I would. It would feel like betrayal. But I love you both for trying

And flashes, suddenly, of how it was. Swimming free in the Midworld Sea, returning from a visit to the world of light and air, and readying herself once more to leave that sunset world behind and return to the benthic deeps in the company of her vast and wonderful love. Floating light in the water, turning to strike out toward the deep thing only a few dozen yards away—

—seeing a little boat of strange aspect, barely more than a pinnace, with a lateen rig and a great weapon mounted at its bow rail, served by two unknown in dark and heavy skins—

—the arcing flight of the harpoon, its broad head strangely shaped and barbed, the cutting edge glinting dark metal as it threw back the rays of the sun—

—finding its mark unerring, everything in her demanding it must not but striking home anyway, and in that instant a vital part of her just gone, and her left floating there as alone as anyone in the world could ever be—

—and later, then, in darkness, her shattered soul not at all assuaged by the blood so freely flowing—not vengeance, this, for none could ever soothe the hurt—not vengeance, but redress

They kill, and carve, and sell. But the last, only to let them kill the more—it is the killing that they seek. They think our lovers monsters, and wish to remove them from the world. And so—you must look after it, dear Emeline. Do not let them find it. And I—

Looking you in the eyes again, suddenly. No expression at all on her face—but her lips are wrinkled back, and the sharp points of her teeth showing.

—I seek them, and find them. And take their weapons, and destroy them. And help them understand the gravity of their mistakes

Lu glances away a moment, and with perceptible effort settles herself. When she looks back to you, it is with a smile much more like those you're used to seeing from her—small, but genuine, with dry amusement lurking at its corners. But—such depths she has, and such sorrow, and such abiding fury there is in her—you know you'll never again see her quite as you have before. To find what you have found, and then to lose it, and having lost it to find a way to go on living nonetheless—could I have done the same? you wonder.

Look after it, dear Emeline, as it looks after you, and never need to find out. She's worked her way up to your thigh, now, massaging the heavy muscles of your quadriceps—a companionably intimate sort of touch, and one which cannot help but stir you—especially in its counterpoint to the much livelier sounds from the cabin outside, and the strong scents carried on the air. And speaking of looking after you—did it hurt you, your lovely beast? Let's see