When you finally wake, it's uncharacteristically gentle—so much so as to be odd, for you're much more accustomed to a hard hand shaking you out of your slumber to attend the responsibilities of the day or the night. Be it a chief turning you out to serve your watch, or your father shaking you awake to go out on patrol—it's a rare and lovely thing, for you, that you should be given leisure to sleep until you're done, and all the more lovely for the wonder you sense at it in your communion with the deep thing—its kind do not sleep at all, you know from thoughts that were not originally your own, and the concept of a desirable attenuation of consciousness is one it finds no less strange than appealing.
You open your eyes to find yourself in the captain's cabin, redly glowing with the light of sunset—a sunset which the sailor in you, though she be but young, notes for its promise of fair weather on the morrow. It's a good light for Captain Hua, too, sitting there in one of the ornate chairs ranged round her dining table; in that red-orange lambency, her fur practically glows with highlights and shadings normally too subtle to be seen. And Quen, kneeling head bowed beside the captain's chair—this marvelous light touches her russet fur with fire. All her fur, or all that's facing any window—whatever the purpose toward which she kneels alongside your captain, it is evidently one which does not require she be clothed.
Hearing you shift under the heavy duvet, the captain turns from the papers before her, and sets aside her quill. "Well now, my girl. You've slept well, haven't you?—well, and long."
Only a day or two ago, you wouldn't even have heard the teasing note in her voice—would only have heard the hard-seeming words, and quailed at them. But that would've been a day or two ago, before all that's passed between you, and now you only smile—that, and stretch, kicking off the duvet and reaching wide with all four limbs and wriggling like a cat atop the thick soft mattress. Like a cat indeed, in nothing but your fur, and the only marvel for you in not minding that you're naked lies in not minding that you don't mind, either. Nor do you mind the gentle warmth of your captain's interested regard, as she watches the show you know you're a little bit putting on.
"Very well indeed, sir," you finally say. "Er—pardon me, sir—" Because your bladder has just awakened, too, and after sleeping the clock almost all the way around, it's very anxious to make up for lost time. Your captain's laughter follows you as you hastily cross her cabin to her private head, and she's still grinning when you come out again a minute later.
"Now then, Emeline. No doubt you're famished—will you come over and sit with me, and let Quen fetch you some supper from the galley? We've some things to talk about, besides."
You are famished—and hadn't even noticed, although at the mere mention of food, your stomach reminds you with a loud and lingering gurgle that sets your captain to chuckling again. And at those same words, Quen rises gracefully from her knees and makes for the cabin hatch—but there's something in her stride, something in the way her eyes skitter away from yours, which moves you to say, "Quen. Wait." And glancing quickly once to Hua, who gives the barest hint of a nod, Quen does.
No doubt she was expecting some inspired castigation—for you to deliver yourself of some degree of anger, fury, even rage, at the way she tried to kill you—and perhaps not only in words. Certainly the way she holds herself, as she stands there waiting to find out what you're going to say or do next, suggests she's anticipating a blow—no doubt the first of many.
She was not expecting a hug.
Well, in fairness, neither were you. But it seemed the only thing to do. It's not only Hua, after all, from whom Quen needs absolution, not if she's going to avoid falling back into the spiral you felt so strongly from her last night—not if she's going to survive. Even if you blamed her for what she did, you wouldn't wish such horror upon her for it as she was so busy last night inflicting upon herself. And—
You shift slightly, loosening your grip around the taller woman's middle and looking up from where you'd pressed your cheek into her own. But what to say? You've never been good with words, you know—and then you remember: you're no longer limited to words alone, if you choose not to be. And so you look her in the eyes, and draw on the deep thing's mind-sense, and—
Thank you, Quen. For everything.
Her eyes widen. Not even fear—just surprise, astonishment, rising off her like sudden steam.
I couldn't have done it without you, Quen. And I can't begin to explain, even like this, how grateful I am for your help. But—here—
It's...not easy, at first. You know what you want to do, but not how to go about doing it—but the deep thing is there with you, in the communion of your minds, and where your grasp of the mind-sense is fumbling and uncertain and hesitant, its own is strong and steady and sure. It senses your intent, and in the mind-sense the thought and the action are one—and for just the barest sliver of a moment, with the gentlest of contacts, you find yourself able to share with Quen a sense of what it now feels like to be you—the joyful wonder of sharing your mind with the deep thing, and the sweet dark delight of sharing your body with it, too, and the endless marvels of its vast mind, and all the myriad wonders of the benthic deeps which it is so anxious to share with you—anxious to share, and anxious too to perceive them as you perceive them, through those of your own senses with which it is not itself endowed.
All that, for just the barest sliver of a moment—more, you feel, and it might draw Quen into communion with the two of you, and you do not know if she, or you, could stand that. Or, perhaps worse, it might not do that—only leave her ever longing, and she has longed for long enough. So you give her only what you safely may, in the hope that it will ease her soul a little—and after a moment of perfect stillness, Quen begins to smile. Begins and begins and begins—the first true smile you've ever seen her wear, and so beautifully radiant, besides! The first you've seen her wear, but you find yourself hoping not the last; the expression lights her face with a warmth that owes nothing to the lambence of the sunset.
It's a lovely moment, and in its wake you turn loose of her, and give back half a step, and nod. So does she, and turns to her errand—not bothering to stop and dress before going out the hatch, either, nor pausing as if to gather her dignity to compensate for the immodesty. Glancing to your captain, you see satisfaction in her eyes—whatever understanding she and Quen have made between themselves, this must be part of it.
"I don't know what that was, my girl, and I don't suppose I shall ask. But whatever it was, I'm glad you did it. Now come and sit with me, for we've things of which to speak."
It was never her wont to repeat an order so—gently. Though what's recently passed between the two of you has given you a new perspective on she who is the Bitch's master and yours, you don't really want to find out what might happen when you deliberately try her patience, so you hasten over to the table and take the chair at her right hand.
"Now then, my girl—now then, Emeline. Seven years, you signed on for, and had left six and nine months. Is that right?"
"Yes sir, that's right," you answer instantly—not sure where this is going, Of course that's right; she keeps those books herself, as with all the ship's accounts. It's tempting to reach out with the mind-sense, and the deep thing eagerly offers—but...no. It wouldn't be right, simply to traipse about in the minds and hearts of others so, and thus you do not, but only look attentively at your captain, and wait for her to speak again, and try not to ask any of the questions that compete for control of your tongue.
"No, it's not. Look here," she says, and taps her index finger's claw on the large and rather ornate document in front of her. The large and rather ornate document which, you suddenly realize, seems familiar—you've seen this paper before—signed this paper before! When you signed aboard the Bitch—this was what you signed; it is your contract of indenture. But...there's one more signature on it than when you signed it before; below your somewhat shaky months—old scrawl is Captain Hua's much more confident impression, the ink still a little damp—her signature, and alongside it the notation: "PAID IN FULL."
"But—Captain—you can't! I still have—"
She shushes you with a finger across the front of your muzzle, and when she speaks, her voice is hard as granite. "You know better than to cross me, girl, and you damn well know I can. Now hush yourself and listen, and I'll tell you what you have."
She lowers her finger, then, and gives you an inquisitive and slightly arch look—but she's right; you do know better than to cross her. It was only the utter shock of seeing she'd signed off your indenture that betrayed you into argument—and you'd argue still the more, but not in the face of a look like the one she's giving you now!
"Better," she says after a moment more, and that look of hers softens into a smile. "Now. What you have...I told you last night that my crew's lives aren't yours to chance with. Not even yours, because for six years and nine months more, you belonged to me. Well—even then, I'd already decided you needn't, any more. You paid off what you owed me the moment that gaff came over the rail. After that I couldn't fairly keep you in my sway—however sorely tempted."
It's distantly amazing that you even can still blush, after last night. But there's something in your captain's—in Hua's—smile just now that has hot color rising in your ears. And something in the thought that she's not your captain any more that has your belly sinking—
"You have your own life back," she says, quietly. "And I know you'll want it badly. You're going to go with it, aren't you?"
So many surprises, so quickly—how does she know? You barely know yourself! But without even a moment's pause for thought, you do know. You know as well as your tongue knows the inside of your mouth—as well as the deep thing knows your mind, and you know its. You are going to go with it. There is nothing in the world that either of you wants more.
"Yes, indeed." Of course she'd see it on you. "Well. And what kind of captain would I be to you, Emeline, if I let you go with your indenture unfulfilled?" She smiles, and lightly pats your cheek. "What kind of captain would I be to you, to forbid you such a thing? You'd be miserable, no use to me or yourself or anyone aboard—and I'd have a mutiny on my hands, too, because after last night there's not a soul aboard who'd deny you."
Just then, the hatch opens before Quen, returning from the galley with a smile and a trencher of stew for you—a double portion, and the renewed growling of your belly says that's just the thing. And convenient, too—while she kneels once more beside her lady, and you busy yourself eagerly about your supper, you needn't try to put words to the whirl of thoughts and feelings in your mind.
Yes, you would go with the deep thing—you'll sojourn with it as long as it will have you, and in your communion, you know that will be long indeed—long and long, for the hope so fulfilled is not only your own. Your whole life long you've sought out strangeness, only so that once found you might give it of yourself as much as you dared—as much as you safely could, and much more still betimes. In such giving, as in nothing else, you've found fulfillment. And now you have found such surpassing strangeness as you had never imagined might exist in the world—found it, and given it of yourself far beyond even your wont, and it has given alike of itself to you, and what you've both found in that sharing has been fulfillment not only beyond imagination, but beyond even hope itself—and you know full well it is but a measure of what you both might find in more intimate sharing still. So—yes. Of course you would sojourn with it, and it with you—and it is hardly even remarkable, now, to realize that these thoughts are not only yours, and not only those of the deep thing, but so thoroughly shared among you both in your communion that you neither can, nor would, attempt to identify any sort of boundary between yourselves in them...that such boundaries could any more exist seems almost by the moment less meaningful and more absurd.
But...there is much here aboard the Reaver Bitch you would not wish to lose, too.
You signed aboard hoping for nothing beyond escape from a style of life which had become no longer tenable. A style of life, indeed, which had been forbidden to you, for you knew full well that it would mean your life upon the instant should you ever try to return to your former village, and even your erstwhile fellows' every hand would be turned against you, did you dare even to approach—even no wood scout, now, would regard you as aught but the vilest of abominations, or suffer you to come alive into eyeshot of the picket wall you defended so well for so long.
You signed aboard hoping for nothing beyond escape—but found to your surprise that you might here make a new life for yourself, something far beyond the mere seven years of servitude into which you'd consigned yourself when you sold Captain Hua your indenture. You did not find companionship, but you did find the hope thereof, once you'd proven yourself worthwhile. You did not find comfort in others, but knew that many of your new crewmates did find such succor in one another, and could hope for that as well. And though you found much to fear in the terribly imposing woman whom above all others you now served, you found much to respect in her besides, and had almost begun to dare hope that...well. That she might come to regard you with other than an apparent desire to inflict by turns the liveliest terror and the dullest drudgery, the better to test your mettle thereby.
Now, in the space of one whirlwind night, you've found all these hopes fulfilled, too. And that has been wonderful in its own right—not more so, or less so, than having found your vast lovely beast—only also.
But...you know you can't have both. You know that to sojourn with the deep thing means leaving the Bitch behind—and that, if you remain aboard the Bitch, the deep thing cannot join you, for you know now that it cannot live so near the surface for long, and that, even restored to itself and no longer dying, its mind-sense can reach only so far. If you remain aboard, it cannot remain with you. And if you leave, you leave so much behind...
It feels not only a hard choice, but an impossible one. And even as you go about the task of feeding yourself, of recovering a measure of the strength you so freely spent last night—you feel yourself locked in such a struggle as you have never known before, between two possibilities—two hopes—the fulfillment of either, you know, must so preclude the other that you can never hope to find it again. You've faced endings before, of course. But always before, they've been forced upon you, and the only choice you had to make was how you would react, how you would go on in the wake of such a reaving.
You have never had to choose an ending before. And it is so terrible—even as you wrestle with it, try to find a way among two so conflicting hopes that need not make you abandon one of them forever—you know that you cannot. You can see no path that permits it.
And there is such an awful silence in your mind.
Even in your sharing with the deep thing—even there is that silence. For, cherish though it does so desperate a hope that you will not forswear the communion you have found between yourselves, it cherishes even more that you should be free to act as you will, and thus restrains itself lest it risk prejudicing your decision.
And though you are not alone—though you need never be alone again—in the awful silence of your mind, in all the world, there are only three things that exist:
There is the choice to remain aboard the Bitch, and lose the wonder and the strangeness of the deep thing. Lose everything it has so quickly and so rightly become to you, in a way of rightness that goes beyond mere satisfaction, mere contentment. Lose the communion among yourselves, which you have so strongly come to desire, and on which so strongly to rely. Lose the marvelous fullness of the fashion in which your minds intermesh and intertwine—lose the comfort and the surety of the fashion in which its thoughts encompass and empower your own, and the sense of delight and joy and pleasure which it finds in every part of you. And, too, lose the fashion in which the deep thing's own strangeness finds fulfillment in yours—for it is after all not only you who finds aught of completion in this sharing; do you stay, then every bit as much as you deny yourself the deep thing, you deny it yourself as well.
There is the choice to sojourn with the deep thing, and leave behind everyone aboard the Bitch. Leave behind Hua so strong and beautiful, in whom you have come to see so much beyond aught you knew. Leave behind Quen who has become something wonderful, and forswear the privilege of seeing and sharing with her what she may under Hua's attentions, both tender and harsh, yet still become. Leave behind small and lovely Lu, whose depths go so far beyond anything you'd ever imagined, and whose sorrow you might dare hope to ameliorate somehow. Leave behind the chiefs, and crew, and all your mates, who have in such little time taught you so much and so well. And in so doing deny their company, their companionship, and the chance to see what yet more they may become to one another, and you to them, and they to you, in the wake of last night's marvels.
And there is you—caught between the two. Knowing full well that either must preclude the other—and finding yourself in every instant all the more helpless to choose.
You cannot move.
You cannot see.
But you cannot.
Such softness as you have never heard in Hua's voice before. Such softness as that with which she rests her hand upon your unmoving own, the spoon having tumbled from nerveless fingers.
"Listen to me, Emeline."
So gentle, she is being, and you wish to heed her words. But you cannot. It's unimportant. Everything is unimportant. Only the one choice, and the other, and yourself. They are all there are, and you must choose, but you cannot, and—
—the pain is as shocking as sudden, stabbing up your arm like a jolt of sudden fire from where Hua's strong thumb and forefinger have caught one of your knuckles between them—caught, and squeezed, and you can feel the joint grinding in her grasp as though full of red-hot shards of glass—
—you yelp and snarl and snatch your hand away, upsetting the nearly empty dish and scattering flatware, and free of Hua's grasp the pain shades red into red—hot anger that curls back your lips and shows your teeth and sends a glare straight into your erstwhile captain's eyes—
—and she is smiling?
"There you are." She reaches up across the space between you and catches your lower jaw in one strong hand—not painfully hard, but unyielding, with that in her grip of your muzzle which sends your senses for an instant flashing back to the feel of the deep thing's tentacles around your feet and ankles. That first time you felt its touch, so strong and so gentle and so utterly, utterly implacable—that sense of a power which could grind you to paste yet held in check and wielded with supreme care, and the sheer confusion of the moment abates your anger—
"Now listen, Emeline." Still soft, but too a little urgent now. "Yes, you have your life again. And you have that lovely monster of yours. But that's not all you have."
She leans in closely, and there's nothing in the world now but her face, her eyes, dark as ever and intent on yours and you cannot even imagine looking away—
"You have a home here, too, Emeline. You will always have a home here." Her smile softens, and dark though her eyes be, they seem almost shining now—something in them, or is it in your own?—"You go where you list, my girl. Go with your monster, if that's where your heart takes you. Go, and be with it, and let it be with you." She turns loose of your muzzle, rests her hands on your shoulders. "Go, the both of you. Go and make of yourselves whatever you will. But go knowing"—she shakes you, gently, dislodging the welling tears from your eyes so you can more clearly see her own—"go knowing that as long as the Bitch still sails—as long as I still have a ship, be she this or any other—go knowing that we will always, always, welcome you home."
And—just like that—you know. You know. You know that you may choose, as you must—but you need not choose an ending. You need not forswear any hope, any fulfillment, any joy. That though you choose to go away a while, to leave this world behind a while and embrace the strangeness which so fills your heart and soul—it need only be a while.
Just like that—you are free.
You can see again.
You can move again.
And you do.
The embrace is close, though brief, your cheek against your captain's—for she is your captain, and you know she always will be, and would not have it otherwise. Will not have it otherwise. Though you be away a while, she will always be here. And so, too, always, will you.
The embrace is no farewell. It is only au revoir. No words need be exchanged, and none are. You know none equal to the moment. No words—only tears, and those right freely, but brief themselves. For this is only au revoir, and there is no sorrow in it.
Quen's smile is lovely still. So, you know, is yours. A hand on her cheek—and then—
—there is so much of the deep thing with you now, nothing of the silence of before, only the fullness of its presence and the wonder of your sharing and the delighted anticipation, all the stronger for that you know in both of you it is soon to be fulfilled, of closer and deeper and more intimate sharing still—
—and with one last smile for your captain, you rise, and turn, and quietly move to the hatch and through it, never feeling your feet touch the deck as you walk to the waist rail—
—one final moment, for now, to savor the company and companionship you've found here, those of your mates above decks turning to look, to see you, as if they too know it'll be the last time for a while—
—but only for a while.
You step over the rail.
Your lover's dark and shining limbs rise to break your fall.
You never touch the sea.