It occurs to Brun that she has not stepped foot in a real city in perhaps two years. She casts a glance over her shoulder at the bird, hidden upstream in a daughter canyon of Normunt's. They have a hike ahead of them yet, but to Sinuk's credit, she snuck incredibly close to the city.
They aren't looking at eachother. Brun keeps her eyes on the horizon while she wraps her rifle with dirty laundry; Sinuk takes up the lead and deliberates with the canyon floor. There's an intricate brick of odd, intestinal metal pipes stowed underneath Sinuk's arm. Some sort of engine, if Brun had to hazard a guess. She isn't sure where she found it, and frankly isn't in the mood to press.
“How far out are they?” Brun asks, instead.
“Hard to say. Reckoned they woulda caught up while we were out at sea. Probably got somethin' planned.” Sinuk kicks a rock down the riverbed.
“You're not worried...? Shouldn't we disguise ourselves?”
“You seen how soft they are here?” Sinuk is grinning in her peripherals, but it's stiff. “Please. I only need a few minutes, tops, once we get into the marketplace.”
Brun looks to the light of the city. She can't see Normunt itself, but it casts a soft glow into the evening sky, far above the canyon rim. Everything is peach at this hour, except the sandstone walls that trace gold and red through the entire length of the canyon.
It's lovely. Beautiful, even.
Sinuk slides down the walls of the riverbed on her heels. She ducks her head and holds a hand out to Brun, easing her down the rockface. The two make the trek in silence.
The river winds into the arterial canals that define the city's shape. Normunt is larger than Brun remembers; it sprawls wall to wall, crawling fully up its sides, in some places. It's every inch a border city, with its architecture spanning ribbed Akiat belltowers, thatched Brundel-Jerian longhouses, cascading Eural cathedrals, and everything inbetween. But much of its materials remain the same adobe, stone, and hardwood, all carved from the canyon and its local forest.
The hair on Brun's neck prickles as they pass through the buffer zone. Sitting on protected land, Normunt has no suburb, and transitions immediately from riverbed to paved stone. In one instant, Sinuk is scraping mud off her boots and onto a boulder. In the next, she's climbing the ramp to the trolley line that runs the city's length.
They take the trolley in silence. We must look like strangers, Brun thinks, as they stand shoulder-to-shoulder without touching. There's another thing she can't remember-- the last time she took public transport.
Sinuk clears her throat.
This trolley line runs along the banks of one of the seasonal riverbeds, merging with the river earnest at the heart of the city. The wash is damp; Normunt is just about due for the monsoon season, and--
Brun breaks with her ruminations on the watershed.
“It's fine,” she says, automatically.
Nothing follows but the hum of the car.
Brun doesn't have to look at Sinuk to feel her staring. Her sympathy reeks. She's either never had to hide it, or isn't bothering to.
“... You can't talk about it?”
Brun gnaws her lip and shifts from one foot to the other. “Not now.”
Sinuk steps with purpose in front of Brun, jutting into her field of view. Brun turns her chin up, but Sinuk straightens out and looks down on her. “But later?”
Brun barely meets her eyes. She doesn't respond in time-- Sinuk's gaze darts to the door, as the car slows to a crawl.
“That's us,” Sinuk says, with a grin. “Showtime.”
“... Qans? Seriously?” Brun downs the last of her street taco, and gawks at the tiny bone shards. The artist is staring daggers at her. She steps away and uses Sinuk to block their line of sight.
Sinuk holds one up to a paper light with her free hand, utterly
engrossed in its minute knotwork. “They're originals, Brun.”
Brun steals a glance at the artist, and takes her voice down a healthy decibel. “No, they aren't! They're tiny!”
Sinuk turns the qan over. It's a Lost draw, a tall, thin rod, with a spiral seared into it not two centimeters in diameter. She's not looking at it, anymore-- she's eyeing Brun out of her peripherals. “Darrow'd pay a fortune for them.”
“Clearly you would--”
Brun blinks. Hold on.
“How did you know she collects qans?”
Sinuk doesn't brake for a second. Her eyes are smiling.
Oh. Brun folds her arms. Should have known better.
Sinuk continues. “We traded one time and she was a dick about it. Listen-- somebody's gonna pay out the ass for them. And yes, they're originals. They carve boards that small.”
Brun is still recovering. Why would she need to fish for something as insignificant as Darrow's taste in divining implements? “I didn't realize that level of detail was possible at that scale,” She says, a little breathlessly. Unless...
She already knew that. And now she knows I knew that.
“That's why they're so valuable,” Sinuk says, looking downright pleased with herself.
Brun doesn't have time to seethe. The impulse doesn't even occur to her-- she's not sure what to think of that, but it probably isn't good. Sinuk is already looking out over Brun's head, through the afternoon buzz. She drops in close, hand clasped on Brun's shoulder.
“That's our man,” Sinuk indicates a hatter's stall with her chin.
Brun has to manually extract the breath from her throat. “Great.”
Sinuk moves past her to navigate the crowd, but lingers on her heel a few strides away.
Brun frowns. “Do your thing. I'm not going anywhere.”
“Not worried 'bout that,” Sinuk says, swinging around to properly see her as she steps backwards. She pats the block underneath her arm and indicates the stall with another quirk of her head. “You a... hat woman, Brun?”
Brun narrows her eyes, but takes a few careful steps after her. “Who's asking?”
“Me? I am?” Sinuk continues backing into the crowd. How she navigates it without bumping into anybody is some act of god.
“... Not really,” Brun admits. She's not sure why she feels guilty about that, but the feeling drops as Sinuk's shoulders slack.
“Figured. Me neither,” Sinuk says. Brun has a hard time imagining Sinuk in any kind of headwear. She never even puts her hoodie up.
Maybe a beanie. Brun forces the thought out of her mind when it becomes a little too ingratiating. Why would she ask? This doesn't feel like the sleight of hand she pulled over the qans not a hot second ago. It's direct, even for a woman as subtle as a bushfire.
What a headache.
Sinuk steps around the booth and under the canopy earnest. The hatter-- a middle-aged, rugged-looking Norbastern man, from his accent-- greets them on their way in. “Miss Vauntariaq! Hello!”
Sinuk cracks a crooked grin at him. “Howdy, Aksel. How's business?”
Aksel finishes pinning a decorative stalk of whetrice to a bush hat, before shifting on his stool to face them.
“Same as it ever is. You still doing that...” Aksel concentrates, black brows knitting together fiercely. “... Long-distance... Freight... Service?”
“I'll take it.” Sinuk's grin doesn't waver.
“Listen, I won't tell if you don't.” Aksel says. “But you're here for that gat, aren't you? Let's see...” He and Sinuk exchange comfortable smalltalk as the two disappear behind the small maze of display racks and divider screens.
Brun lingers on the shapes moving between the wireframe, but, after a long enough time spent eavesdropping, finally looks away.
She's in a hat shop, she realizes. Maybe four years ago she would be browsing, like she had pocket money and a vested interest in hats. She glances at the rest of the stall. Down a long row of straw ten-gallons is a little black scarf.
She looks down on her own concert of coal, sable, ebony, and-- indeed-- black.
She looks back up at wireframe. Sinuk and Aksel are knee-deep in the finer points of fur content and felt cowboy hats.
Brun looks back to the scarf. She steals away to it.
She owls the scarf, at first, shifting on her feet to watch the afternoon sun reflect off of of it. Geometric grackles are embroidered up and down its length, with all the subtle iridescence of the bird. She reaches out and runs her fingertips along the stitching, then, shirking caution, takes it up in her hands.
She unspools the scarf, only to realize there is no scarf to unspool-- It's a sort of cowl, joined at both ends. She inverts the loop. Of course it's reversible.
Aksel's voice rings out at her right. “So who's this?”
Brun nearly slams her ankle into a canopy strut. Aksel and Sinuk round the display-- If Sinuk is grinning, Aksel is positively beaming. He continues, “A lady friend?”
Sinuk lurches as immediately as she recovers. She coolly transitions into leaning against the strut, and lords her height over Brun. “... It's complicated.”
Brun blanches. “It absolutely is not complicated.”
“Hah!” Aksel barks. “I like the little lady.”
“You know this wolf hunts alone,” Sinuk runs a hand through her hair and flicks her wrist out in a slick salute. Despite the lethal volume of tackiness contained in those seven syllables, the likes of which would kill lesser women, the good humor is strained in her face.
Aksel doesn't notice. “Wonderful! I never saw her.”
Brun is too mortified to speak. Sinuk turns her chin up at the wider marketplace, and blessedly changes the subject. “What's the time?”
She's speaking in tongues. Aksel grins. “Oh... I don't know, truth be told. I saw that Nicky girl skulking around here. You'd best make it quick.”
“Quick enough to buy a scarf?”
Brun doesn't know if she can handle the direction this conversation is taking.
“You sure you aren't finally settling down?” Before Sinuk can object, Aksel turns to Brun. “It's yours, little lady. How would you say... On the house?”
Brun is panicking, now. “I can't accept this.”
“Sure you can.” Sinuk flips a thick Asthaomic coin Aksel's way. “Thank you, Aksel. Now don't ever say that about me again.”
If that's a threat, Aksel seems to finally take it as one. He clears his throat, a little red in the face. “... Yes. You're welcome. Apologies. ”
You don't understand! Brun thinks. Her tongue is too thick to keep up with them. Her hands tremble in a clammy sweat as she unconsciously wrings the cowl.
Aksel looks out over the marketplace. “Give Eun-sung my regards, would you? And tell him to pick up his own damn deliveries, for once.”
“Unlikely,” Sinuk says, as she corrals the still-mortified Brun
out from under the canopy.
They take the trolley back out to the city limits. Brun has the chance to calm down, but doesn't take it. Instead, her panic simmers with the taco into a hot chili of regret and anxiety. She's pretty sure she'll ruin the stitching on the cowl before she makes it home. If she does.
Sinuk seems to have taken note, at least, and leaves it well alone. That soothes Brun just as much as it sets off her anxiety.
“I love Aksel, but-- bless his heart-- he is nosy as all get out.”
It couldn't last.
Brun looks up at Sinuk, who's watching Normunt fall away on the other side of the glass. She's still thinking about that? She mentally scolds herself for also still thinking about it. “You kind of enabled him.”
Sinuk stalls for a moment. She chews a stalk of whetrice that isn't there, and looks down on Brun through half-lidded eyes. “Careful, hotshot, you almost put me and the word 'enabled' in the same sentence.”
“I did,” Brun mutters, and then finds her voice. “Why'd you say 'It's complicated?'”
“I panicked,” Sinuk deadpans.
Brun studies her. She doesn't have to know what panic looks like on Sinuk to know that this ain't it.
“I don't believe that,” Brun says.
“Heh,” Suddenly, Sinuk's open hand is thrust in the precious little space between them. “Here, I'll cut you a deal.”
Brun stares at the hand.
“You tell me what's eating you, and I might spill the beans.”
“'Might?'” Brun wrinkles her nose as she looks back up at Sinuk. “You're not worth that much. You'll just say 'I had indigestion,' or something.”
“Ouch.” Sinuk's hardly fazed. “But you did basically promise, so.”
Brun levels her a look. It slowly finds its way down to Sinuk's still-outstretched hand.
She lets it linger in the air, there, until it finally drops. They ride the rest of the line in silence.
Sinuk and Brun round a sheer cliff into the daughter canyon, and step straight under the long shadow of the looter.
“Oh, shit,” Brun hisses, as she grabs Sinuk by her hood and pulls her back behind the wall. The woman doesn't even fumble, but she does raise an eyebrow at Brun.
“We saw you.” A voice carries loud and clear through the impressive acoustics of the canyon. “What're you doing flying around a decommissioned bird?”
Brun doesn't chance a peek, but Sinuk plasters herself up against Brun's shoulder and very much does.
“Luck of the beast,” Sinuk whispers, in heavy lilt, as recognition dawns its morning light on her face.
Before Brun can grab her, Sinuk barrels out into the open and waves her arms ecstatically. “Hold on! Don't shoot! I saw one of your acts when I was like 17, and I'm a huge fan...!”
Brun claps her shaky hands on the edge of the wall and peers out yonder the sandstone. Sinuk has her arms in the air and is grinning like a dog of the steppe; The velk vessel is sheltered where they left it, in the belly of a wash, while the looter is perched atop the wash's lip further down the canyon.
A stranger stands on high of the velk vessel, shielding the last of the evening sun from her eyes. Her cohort is stretched languidly over the nape of its neck-- but at Sinuk's outburst, they both lurch. The stranger scowls, but her cohort mirrors Sinuk's enthusiasm.
“What! Oh, my god! Ken, I told you we could resolve this peacefully--”
Ken doesn't miss a beat. “Name three of our albums!”
Sinuk is elated. She picks up her pace as she approaches the vessel-- and not before shooting a wink Brun's way.
Sinuk counts on her fingers. “'Kathaomalqut,'”
Ken nods, sagely. Her cohort leans in.
Sinuk shoots Brun another look, then indicates the far end of the wash with her chin.
“And the single, 'My Roommate Hon. Ors Undurne Plays a Lawful Good Auditor in Ruins & Resonance.'”
Her pace does not slow. Sinuk overtakes the velk vessel, and runs straight for the looter.
Ken scoffs. “M's singles don't count--!!”
“Oh, that's an obscure one! I didn't think anybody listened to it,” M cups their face in delight.
But the critical hour comes a little late for them. Brun shoots off from the safety of the canyon face, at a pace intent on closing the long gap between her and Sinuk. It's only then that Ken blinks, looks between the velk vessel and the looter, and then drags her hands down her face.
“Emmett... Emmett our kite!”
Sinuk is already pulling up the wall of the wash, and launching herself on the belly hatch of the looter. She swings 'round on her heel, saluting Ken and M with a two-finger flair.
Betrayal looks badly on M. They nearly roll clear off the vessel's spine as they throw themself back in horror. “How could you do this to us? I thought you were a fan!”
Ken vaults off the velk vessel and hits the riverbed running. Brun throws a glance backwards-- Ken is putting brush, rock, and loam alike underneath her without a second thought. Brun nearly loses her footing as the riverbed grade turns upward to form the far ridge. She'll be overtaken before she can pry the rifle off her back and unwrap it-- and even if she did, word of her whereabouts would get around in a hurry.
She whirls around on her heels, throwing herself low to the ground and bracing for impact. Ken is just about her height, perhaps a little taller, but for her low center of gravity she could run like an antelope.
Ken's palms ignite in brilliant god's blood. Her foot falls heavy on this final bound, shoulder thrown back.
Brun drops, and slams herself into Ken's legs.
Several things happen. Ken instead throws herself left, jamming her hand into Brun's shoulder and twisting her off-keel. Brun eats dirt-- but not before bringing Ken down with her.
“I didn't think that'd work!” Ken grits her teeth as she grins, but there isn't an ounce of malice in it.
Brun gasps. Her blood surges, boils, burns to vapor in her veins.
Sacre ruptures openly from the seams where Ken's palm connects with
her shoulder. The fatigue is immediate. Brun buckles as her soul
bleeds out into the open sky, and curses it for yielding so easily.
Three shots. Brun cuts her teeth on the urge to ball up. The pain never comes.
Ken, however, is stock still. God's blood blooms from underneath her shawl, tickling her face as it rises into the plum night sky. She opens her mouth, and light spills out.
Two slugs in her stomach; one in the base of her neck. Sinuk lowers the bleeding metalock.
“Oh! My god! They've got a gun!” M is stuck midway between diving under the velk vessel and throwing themself into the fray.
Brun makes a face as Ken goes jelly on her. She skitters out from underneath her, propping her up awkwardly on her knees. Brun hesitates. She indicates her still-wrapped rifle, then Ken, and makes another face that she hopes looks apalled enough.
“... You're... not supposed to open-carry in the canyon this time of year... without a permit...” Ken's voice abstracts underneath the sacre in her lungs.
Brun's shoulders slump. A woman of Ken's spirit would be fine in about fifteen minutes, tops; Sinuk's shots, though uncharacteristically precise, weren't devastating. But that doesn't do anything for Brun. She's not sure when the last time anybody acted in good faith around her was, and now they've been sorely repaid with three bullets and some gravel.
Sinuk's barking laughter cuts the air as three more shots force M to dance back under the cover of the ship. “You're such Normies! It's giving me cute aggression.”
“You can't do this,” M holds their face. “You can't do this!”
Ken, despite the heavy soulbleed, musters the strength to stumble up on her feet. “I'm on a first-name basis with the Atayaska! If you touch that kite, so help me...!”
“Sen?” Sinuk nearly drops the metalock as she buckles over in another fit of laughter.
Ken deflates. God's blood billows from her mouth, as her knees droop low to the ground. “... Stop laughing, that was a threat.”
“She's a joke.” Sinuk sobers. The tone of her voice resonates off the canyon walls in a way that Brun hasn't heard before, and she instinctively glances backwards. The smile is gone from the woman's face. “Where was she when you called for her? Foolin' around in Io's office?”
“That's--!” Ken points fiercely at Sinuk, and then covers her mouth. “... Not wrong.”
M's voice is thick. “Were you at least telling the truth about being a fan?”
Sinuk chews that invisible whetrice. “Yeah.”
M bumps their fist while biting back tears.
Sinuk stoops at the edge of the ridge to help Brun up the last few steps. Brun isn't sure she has words for what they just pulled-- not positive ones, anyway. She makes it up over the lip, and Sinuk claps a hand on her shoulder, idly scrubbing off some sacre and dust.
Brun winces. The sacre is stubborn, apparently, because Sinuk doesn't stop for a solid ten seconds. Brun clears her throat and whispers “What was that about?”
Sinuk quirks an eyebrow.
Brun tries again. “The Atayaska?”
Sinuk's brow levels out. That tone is back, again-- sober. Sharp. Clinical. “You're a Forgeourner. Take a wild guess.”
“You're mad that she turned herself in?”
Sinuk's mouth quirks. “Ain't mad. But you of all people should know a bird like that can't die. She left a lot of people behind.”
Brun is watching her, now. “Didn't know you were into folk stories.”
“You should listen to them,” Sinuk taps a finger on her chin, tut-tutting Brun. “They ain't just stories.”
Brun considers that. The Atayaska is the oldest bogeyman in the vocabulary of the young Forgeourner. Ever since she learned to walk, the feathered fiend ghosted her at every trespass: Always 'Don't play too far from home, else the Atayaska pluck you in its talons and fly off,' or 'Don't look over the canyon edge. The Atayaska takes your eyes if you see it.'
With her age the stories grew in complexity. Those who went missing struck Atayaskan deals with the bird under cover of night. By dawn they either found freedom, or an untimely end at the serrated edge of the monster's beak. Such is the law of the beast-- Altruism beyond all loving gods; cruelty beyond all human hearts.
Nevermind that the Atayaska was flesh and blood, once. Sen gave up the bloody business of helping people disappear well over a hundred years ago. But to this day the story remains in the heart of the Forge, passed from mother to daughter, down river and loam.
Brun wants to pick the woman's brain further, but Sinuk's eyeing Ken and M. Brun leaves the Atayaska in the past, and says, quietly, “They'll just follow us again.”
A very slow grin cracks itself across Sinuk's face. She indicates the metal block, toted all this time underneath her arm. “No they won't.”
Brun blinks. “The engi--!”
“Uhp, Ah-ah!” Sinuk's knuckles rap against Brun's mouth, and that shuts her up immediately. “Don't spoil it for them.”
Brun can't help herself. She feels her lips curling into a smile-- or some semblance thereof. Despite everything, she laughs.
The impulse is completely foreign to her body. It feels like the bastard son of a grimace, the disgraced heir to heaving sobs. She can't even begin to imagine how ridiculous she looks. But it's light. And bubbly, too. Warm.
Sinuk doesn't think to take her hand away, but Brun is using it to steady herself, anyway. She goes on laughing like this for some time, until she lets out an undignified snort.
She looks up at Sinuk. The woman's eyes are wide, and dark, and deep, and she's not smiling. At first Brun recoils, but Sinuk's grip is iron. The corners of the woman's mouth finally quirk into a tiny, crooked smile. She remembers herself and lets go.
Brun is relieved to put space between them, but now they're staring at eachother. She realizes that making eye contact with Sinuk is not innately uncomfortable, or even unpleasant, and files that away with the rest of the baggage she'll be taking to the grave.
“Are you gonna take the kite or not?”
Ken is lying in the dirt, with her eyes fixed furiously on the ribbons of god's blood rising into the night sky. M has found their spine and crouches over her, closing bullet holes.
Brun flashes a look at them. “Is that a legal transfer of property?”
The musicians, in unison: “No!”
Sinuk is still staring at her. This time, the grin is wider. “... Was that a joke, Brun? I didn't know you could do those.”
M's fingers run along the calcified internals of the velk vessel. The ghost is gone from it, leaving the bird an empty husk. They hum out a few thoughtful bars as Ken limps into the engineroom.
The looter is long gone, and they feel as though a little piece of their music went with it. Maybe that's saccharine, but they can't help their heart. The compositions all come back heavy and sodden, now.
In time with the lull in their song-- but nonetheless startling M-- Ken screams:
“FUCK ME EMMETT, SHE TOOK THE ENGINE!”
“Oh, I have always wanted to pilot this thing,”
Sinuk pulls the looter's belly low to the Mercasian shield. She's not stopped grinning since she climbed into the cockpit.
Brun had never been in a manual kite. It handles oddly-- The velk ship was mathematical, and so had mathematical hiccups, but the looter is completely organic. It flies like a soaring bird, bowing to invisible thermals in place of a traditional engine. Brun doesn't realize just how sensitive it is, until, by fluke, the barrel of her rifle smacks against one of the cabin supports. Sinuk doesn't visibly start, but Brun can feel the wheel lurch about a millimeter to the left. She has no idea how Ken and M manage to take it into deep space without it spontaneously combusting.
Sinuk is soaked in sweat and god's blood by the time she's finished. Brun had repeatedly offered to spill her sacre into the ship, and make herself its battery. But each time, Sinuk refused. Brun finally figured she shouldn't get in the middle of such an intimate conversation.
The looter hovers mere feet above the flat rock. Brun kicks the hatch out and drops to the ground, shielding her face from the wind with her scarf and feeling along the hull until she finds the bow kickstand.
She pulls it down, locks it in place with a sideways yank, and skitters out from underneath the looter to give Sinuk the thumbs up.
The looter slumps into the shield with a final, mighty sigh. Brun pulls herself back up into its belly.
Sinuk is panting gently in the pilot's seat. Moonlight lingers on the smattering of sweat, sacre, and grease caked on her skin.
It's not a bad look, Brun thinks. She'd clean up handsomely-- and she escorts the image of Sinuk in a dress shirt and leather vest out of her mind just as quickly as it invites itself in-- but Brun has a difficult time seeing her lose the rugged gunslinger veneer.
Not that she wants her to. But like most things that have happened within the past 24 hours, the effortlessness with which Sinuk manages to get by causes her to feel unwell. Jealousy, maybe. She files that away, too.
Sinuk turns in the seat, running a hand through her hair. Brun finds something else to look at.
If the velk ship was tiny, the looter is downright diminutive-- hardly more than a cockpit and four bunkbeds. There's junk stowed wherever it can find purchase; huge leather suitcases, wooden crates, manila folders upon manila folders, bundles of wires, cords, a little wine rack repurposed into a scrollcase, all jam-packed between nautical netting into three of the beds. She wonders how they keep it all from flying out.
Sinuk has suddenly relocated from the cockpit to her shoulder. “Reckon it's time, huh.”
Brun narrowly manages to keep both feet planted on the floor. She isn't sure Sinuk is aware that ominously manifesting behind people is considered impolite, and makes a face up at her. “Time?”
Sinuk returns the look. “You're not turning in? It's almost midnight.”
Brun looks back at the bunks, and lets her shoulders droop. “I got up at noon.”
“Oh,” Sinuk says. “Had you figured for a night owl.”
Brun scrunches up her nose, and pokes the dark circles under her eyes.“What could have possibly given me away.”
Sinuk grins, but it lacks the sharpness, the wolfish amusement that usually comes with it. What remains is something too sincere for Brun's liking. Something she might go so far as to call dopey. “I was kind of hoping you'd stay up.”
“Not that I like you havin' sleep problems,” Sinuk says, with a palm out. Even when she corrects herself she reeks of self-assuredness. “But insomniacs make good sentries, if you catch my drift.”
Brun narrows her eyes. She isn't really sure why Sinuk feels the need to posture when it's just the two of them. “I do abysmal work when I haven't slept, actually,”
“... Noted,” Sinuk smooths her neck.
She glances sidelong at the bunks. Brun follows her gaze to the single unmade bed. Sinuk moves automatically to it, stepping up on the edge of the empty bottom bunk and pulling herself against the top by the netting.
Brun makes a face. “What are you doing?”
She perches there for a moment, awkwardly, then yanks on the netting. It doesn't budge. She yanks harder. The kite framework groans. Sinuk is making a face, now, too. “Gimme a hand here.”
Brun pads up to her side, and then finds herself pacing antsy semicircles around Sinuk. She's not entirely sure she's tall enough to give a hand.
Sinuk wraps her wrist with the netting and leans at an angle off of the bunks. The ropes strain under her grip, and the scaffolding begins to whine. Brun pauses on her feet, then loops her arms around Sinuk's stomach, making herself into as much dead weight as she can.
The back of Brun's skull hits the floor, knocking the better sense from her head and the breath from her lungs. Her chest seizes a few times, trying to get it back, but she's being smothered by Sinuk's hoodie.
Sinuk pulls forward, and Brun sucks in a proper breath. Sinuk recovers much more quickly, propping herself up on her elbow and scruffing her hair while she examines the length of rope in her hand.
“We probably deserved that,” Sinuk mumbles.
“You might have. I didn't.”
Sinuk glances over her shoulder at Brun. “You good?”
Sinuk still doesn't move, and the smell of dirt, smoke, and sweat-- not stale sweat, but fresh, pleasantly musky sweat-- is stemming Brun's higher faculties from returning. Sinuk sits up, but pauses. She touches her stomach, and the arms looped like death around them.
Brun wheezes. She unlatches herself from Sinuk and scrabbles away from her.
Sinuk pops back up on her feet and is climbing the frame of the bunkbed again. “Sorry,” She says, reflexively. “Your pick of the bunk, if'n we can--”
She's pulling on a mesquite trunk. It doesn't budge. She presses herself up against the top bunk, peering into the tangle of netting and clutter. “... Who in Sam Hill?”
Brun gets on her feet, rubbing the back of her head tenderly. “What? What is it?”
Sinuk's brow is pressed in concentration. Her voice slips through her teeth in such a way that it sounds-- for once-- strained. “Who individually nails down every piece of cargo they bring aboard?”
Brun locks up. She bites down the impulse to placate her, but holds out a diplomatic palm anyway. “It's not a big deal. I can just sleep on the floor.”
“Like hell you will,” Sinuk takes a too-heavy step down from the bunk, and stomps the floor with her heel for effect. “That's 15 centimeters between you and the shield windchill. I'll sleep on the floor.”
“Did you bring a blanket?” Brun realizes she hasn't seen Sinuk get this affected about anything. She should have accounted for this, the Perfectly Reasonable and Professional Sniper in her head says, she should always have a contingency plan for when other people head into the absent north. The rest of her is finding cold comfort in this.
“Did I hesitate?” Sinuk folds her arms.
But something about that doesn't set right with Brun. She shuts one eye in thought. Of all the things in the world that could throw Sinuk even a little off-keel, why did it have to be a mere hiccup in their sleeping arrangements?
Her breath hitches. No, this isn't the first time she's been like this.
“Nobody has to sleep on the floor,” Brun indicates the bunk. “We can just share.”
Sinuk blanks, and her whole body droops. “... We can?”
Brun narrows her eyes. She's been one step behind Sinuk all day, and she's not about to let her opportunity to catch up slip. Even if the woman is looking downright pathetic. “We're grown adults. Why are you so afraid of being seen with somebody?”
Sinuk lights up. Brun struggles not to frown. Damn it. What did she give away this time?
Sinuk cracks a wide grin. “I didn't take you for that kind of girl, Brun! Sleeping with strange women...!”
Brun's shoulders drop clean off her body. She strangles the air. “This isn't some kind of steamy--! What are you getting at, anyway? You've been at this all day!”
Sinuk is looking at her like she'd just bit into a particularly delicious peach. “You wanna know what I'm gettin' at?”
Brun is walking into a trap and she knows it.
Sinuk slinks into a slow lope around Brun, hands in her hoodie pockets. “Wide shot of the high Asthaom desert. Pan in on our heroine, the finest sharpshot the local galaxy's had the misfortune of knowing--”
“Don't do that,” Brun says.
“-- Who doesn't know how to have a good time. Fine. Anyway, what's an upstanding gel like you got to gain from staging a ransom with a handsome rogue like me? You've got it all-- The guns, the money, the cartel...” Sinuk trails off with a lingering lilt.
Suddenly, her face is in Brun's. “The girl.”
Brun socks Sinuk square in the shoulder.
Sinuk stumbles backwards, clutching her shoulder with wide eyes and a stupefied grin. Brun manages to find her breath, and examines her hand in equal horror.
“Ow, ow ow ow...” Sinuk's grin becomes apologetic. “I deserved that.”
Brun's blood is burning. She advances on Sinuk with a few sharp steps. “You'd best explain yourself.”
“That's it, Brun-- That's what I'm getting at! You're the only one who's like that around Darrow!”
Brun freezes in her tracks. She can feel her cheeks burn.
Sinuk is irrepressible. She lords her height back over Brun. “You wanna know what I think?”
“What you think,” Brun repeats.
“You two were thick. As. Thieves.”
Brun becomes very still. She wants to scrub this damnable heat out of her face, but her fists are balled heavy at her sides. She barely breathes.
Sinuk continues. “A best friend? Or maybe... Something more?”
“That's jumping to some mighty asinine conclusions. Where's your evidence?” Brun manages, weaker than she would have liked.
“You know everything about her.”
Brun blinks. The qans. “If this is about--”
“It ain't about the qans anymore, Brun.” Sinuk is suddenly straight-faced. Her eyes are lidded, dark, and thinking deeply. “I said what I said. You're the only one who looks at Darrow like that.”
Brun flinches at her name. Damn it.
“Like that. You're hiding something big about her, ain't ya? Something the rest of the crew doesn't know.”
Water fills Brun's lungs. “Sinuk,” She croaks.
But Sinuk doesn't get the memo. She leans in. “It's complicated, innit? A messy breakup? Some nasty old grudge?”
“You got dirt on her? Or maybe... She cheated, and--”
“She's fucking blackmailing me!”
Her voice rings out against the looter cabin, shivering long into the wailing shield. Sinuk has recoiled. Her eyes are wide, her face soft, and empty, and her arms held protectively against herself. Her lips part around words she ultimately fails to voice.
Brun feels very small where she stands. The impulse is there, burning in the base of her skull, to kick out the hatch and run as far as the island would take her. But her legs are lead, and don't listen. With no recourse, her traitorous eyes begin to sting.
“... Oh,” Sinuk finally says, in a very small voice.
“She's not--” Brun's voice is too thick for her to control, but she struggles against it anyway. “She's my ex, yeah, but listen, Sinuk... It's not... She's not a bad person.”
Sinuk's eyes dim.
“She's just sick. Like me.”
There's a pair of hands clapped roughly around Brun's arms. She's surprised only by how little her body responds to them.
“You don't have to make excuses for her, Brun.” Sinuk's breath is hot on her cheek. The light in the woman's eyes is out; her dark irises meld seamlessly with her pupils, and it's as hypnotic as it is hard to look at.
Brun turns her cheek up at Sinuk. If she speaks, it'll be through sobs.
Sinuk holds her there until her breathing steadies and the howling shield overtakes it.
When Sinuk finally lets go, she trudges over to the bunk and slumps down into it. Brun reflexively touches the empty space on her arms.
“I didn't...” Sinuk runs a hand up along her jaw and through her hair, dragging it back down over her face. She wraps her arms around herself and pulls her knees up to her chest, feet propped on the edge of the bunk. “Fuck. I didn't know.”
Brun lingers for a long draw in the middle of the cabin.
Sinuk's head is resting on her knees when Brun takes a seat next to her. The woman jerks, and looks up at her. Brun doesn't meet her eyes. “You're not the one with your neck on the line. Did you really think you'd be doing me a favor?”
Sinuk lays her head back down and lets out a heavy breath, making her seem very small in the mouth of the bunk. “... Yeah. I did.”
They share the silence that follows.
“You don't have to go back,” Sinuk says, quietly.
Brun bites her lip.
“Whatever she's got on you can't be that important. You can just-- just disappear.”
“No, I can't.”
“It's that important. I'm sorry.”
Sinuk is touching her again, this time in the crook between her neck and shoulder. Her calloused fingertips are cold, and hesitant, reverant. “She'll just--”
“I know.” Brun leans into it. “I know. This isn't new to me. I know.”
Sinuk rests her hand there. Anguish is a bad look for her, Brun decides. Sinuk's clutching her head and furiously working her thumb in little circles around her temple. It takes Brun a moment to realize that she's mirroring the gesture on her, thumbing idly into her collarbone.
“I shouldn't have done this,” Sinuk mumbles.
The wind slips under the looter in a low, sonorous hum that gently rattles the floor hatch. Brun can't hear Sinuk's irregular breaths, but she can feel them. They slowly sync with the sighing of the wind.
Despite everything, it's comforting.
“I'm having fun,” Brun says, very softly.
Sinuk looks up at her. Brun closes her eyes.
“I don't regret it.”
Brun throws herself forward.
Her gut is struck. She's tangled up in something-- wrapped-- no, restrained. The morning sun cuts her bleary eyes through the cockpit, and she shields her face as she kicks herself back under the bunk. But she never makes it. Instead, she's snared by a warm web of limbs. She feels along her stomach. It's uncharacteristically hard, cut with wiry hair and bumpy little scars. Those are Sinuk's arms looped around her.
Her better sense comes back to her.
After last night's little fiasco, getting Sinuk to be normal about sharing a bed wasn't so difficult. It wasn't easy, either. Sinuk had to turn herself into a fourth dimensional shape in order to fit in the bunk with her. She faced the cabin, which sandwiched Brun between Sinuk and a hard place.
Something murky lights up in the slurry of her brain. She props herself up on her elbow, carefully minding the Sinuk plastered to her back, and reaches for the woman's tablet.
Brun stares at the interface. She slept the whole night through, without interruption. And then slept in.
She looks over her shoulder at Sinuk. She'll be more alarmed that the woman is hooked on her like a straddling boondog in about three minutes, when she's more awake. But right now, she's trying to suss out how they managed to switch sides in their sleep. And where the pillow went. Sinuk had adamantly placed it between them to prevent what is currently happening.
What a headache.
She slumps back into the mattress. Sinuk makes a small noise into her shoulderblades. She waits for the guilt to seep in, but it doesn't come. It's warm, and pleasant, and she thinks she might take another nap.
She doesn't recall when she's due to go home. She's not sure if she cares. Well, that's not true. She simply isn't willing to trade a wink of honest sleep to avoid the harrying Darrow is going to wring her through when she gets home.
At first it's quiet. Brun lets her eyes lid as she stretches back out over the bunkframe. Sinuk shifts, smearing drool across Brun's undershirt and onto her shoulders.
“Nnnnnn... Ah... Uh--!!”
Sinuk pins her back against the wall. It doesn't suit her-- the groggy fear of a body remembering a nightmare that the mind does not-- and her frenetic spidering almost shoves Brun off the edge of the bed.
“Um!” Sinuk's voice never loses that mock confidence, even when it's being keened through her teeth. “That... Wasn't me.”
Brun is still getting her bearings. “That wasn't... You?”
Sinuk keeps her back to the top bunk as she crawls over Brun and sidles out the other end. “Where did--?”
Suddenly, she's lying on the cold, hardwood floor. The pillow does a neat little flip in the air. The woman whines painfully.
Brun leans over the edge of the bunk. “Are you okay?”
Sinuk stares up at her. She's no worse for wear, but she also doesn't look like she'll be righting herself anytime soon. “Sorry,” she wheezes.
Brun is loathe to leave the comfort of the blanket, so she wraps it around herself and sits up slowly at the edge of the bed. “You're not the worst person to bunk with. Darrow bit me in her sleep once--”
“-- So it's really no big deal.”
“I want to go back to the fact that Darrow bit you in her sleep.”
Brun makes a face at her. “She probably can't control that.”
Sinuk returns it. “Small wonder you have sleeping problems. Are all your exes like that?”
Brun lets her head loll.“I dated a normal person once, and it was the lowest my self-esteem was at in years.”
Sinuk apparently hadn't prepared for a sincere answer. She softens, and struggles to right herself without taking her eyes off Brun. She croaks-- that tiny, sleepy sound-- without any thought behind it.
Brun looks away. It occurs to her that Sinuk's sympathy is so profoundly uncomfortable because it has nothing to hold it back. She should be afraid of people getting a read on her. She should be afraid of having that heart weaponized, turned on her throat, needled between her ribs in a first and last moment of vulnerability. She should be afraid of Aksel's loose lips, afraid of piloting this taped-together mockery of god, afraid of sleeping with no sentry in a strange place, afraid of staging this nonsense ransom, afraid of Darrow, afraid of betrayal, afraid of her.
She stops wringing the blanket. Sinuk pulls herself off the floor and stoops, for a moment, to see her. She takes a seat at the edge of the bed a safe distance away.
“What's Darrow got on you, anyway?”
Brun blinks up at Sinuk. It's automatic; she smiles an empty smile before she can think to stem the impulse, before she realizes she doesn't want to stop herself.
If these had been lighter circumstances, Brun would jibe Sinuk for the look on her face. Instead, she does her best to capture it in memory.
“... Pardon?” Sinuk says, with a tiny upturn of her voice. “You have family?”
“I didn't crawl out of the ocean black.”
“I'm gonna believe what I choose to believe.” Sinuk flops backwards into the bed, letting out a heavy breath. She looks up at Brun. “Who does he run with?”
Brun follows suit, steadying herself down on her elbows. “He's got his life straight. We had a falling out when--” She gestures vaguely at the ribs of the top bunk “-- All this happened. I don't blame him.”
“Shit.” Sinuk rubs her face, and turns on her shoulder to see Brun.
“You wanted out.”
Brun goes numb. She closes her eyes and pushes herself to reciprocate, but her body is lead. She feels as though she might drop through the mattress and out of the looter entirely. The lion's share of her brain would like that very much, but her higher facilities want to be heard, to be held right now.
“Yeah,” Brun says, almost inaudibly. “I did. I do.”
She feels Sinuk's fingertips brush her shoulder. She tenses. She wants to press into it, to have Sinuk's arms hooked back around her, to snotty the woman's ratty undershirt and fall asleep again. She holds herself down.
God, she's clingy.
Sinuk is quiet for a long draw. It's hard to shake the feeling that she's staring at her. Brun rolls over to face her, hands clutched close to her chest. She opens her eyes.
“You can get out,” Sinuk says, very softly. There is softness there, in all her features; softness that a woman of such tooth, such hyperbole should not possess. Softness that makes Brun feel dirty, by comparison, for so brazenly beholding it.
Softness that almost fools her into believing Sinuk.
“And what? Run away with you? That's asking the Atayaska of me.”
“The Atayaska,” Sinuk repeats. There's no indignance, there, no anger. There's no resignation, either.
Sinuk slips her hand under the crook of Brun's jaw, cupping her cheek. Brun's breath hitches-- She had not realized how close they are, how effortless this has become.
Sinuk is quick. She presses the sellion of her nose to Brun's brow, just long enough to say “Then I'm coming back for you.”
A sense of disease, of unwellness had always ghosted Brun's fondness for other people. To touch and be touched she had to first swallow down the impulse to hurl. Affection was the sort of sickness that she wanted to keep around for a while, like sleeping under the covers with a fever. Or Darrow, when they were on pleasant terms.
Brun croaks. This isn't the same. It is familiar, like her own hands clasped around her own cheek. She feels nothing, and it feels good.
When Sinuk pulls away, she takes Brun's breath with her. Brun reflexively scrubs the heat from her face, but finds it isn't there. She stares at Sinuk helplessly.
For a draw, Sinuk is stolid. And then it gives way to that dopey, lopsided grin. “That was a friend-bunt? We're friends, right?”
“You kidnapped me,” Brun says, and is immediately struck with the urge to throw herself into the empty shield. The first words out of her mouth and they're not even 'I think that cured my insomnia,' or 'You can not begin to comprehend what that means to me,' or 'Thank you.'
“I've got bad news 'bout your status as a captive, then,” Sinuk sticks out her lower lip and sits up. Brun squints at her. The woman hadn't passed up even a single opportunity to needle her history with Darrow, but chose the most chaste-- and yet utterly intimate-- gesture of goodwill to send her off with. As if bunting is something people just do. Like breathing, or taxes, or magic.
Brun pushes herself up. “Hold on--”
She touches Sinuk's arm. That catches the woman's eye. Brun recoils as if she'd touched a hot pan, and struggles to keep her voice from wavering under Sinuk's raised brow.
“There's-- There's something I wanted to ask you.”
Sinuk's eyes are coolly lucid so soon after waking. That calculated grin creeps back across her face. “Mighty brazen of you.”
“You kidnapped me.”
The woman sobers. “Shoot.”
Brun lists over the edge of the bed with her fists balled against her legs. She considers her words for a long draw, until she decides Sinuk's scrutiny isn't making it any easier to think as the seconds drag by.
“I want you to hold onto my cut.”
The corner of Sinuk's mouth quirks into that deliriously confident but empty smile. “The two thirds?”
Sinuk falters. “Brun, I thought we agreed no promises-ies.”
“It doesn't have to be all of it. You know I can't take it home.” Brun bites her lip and keeps her eyes on the floor. “Just-- something.”
“And what, pray tell, are you gonna do with that somethin'?”
Brun side-eyes Sinuk. She's feeling coy. “If Darrow doesn't kill me when I get home? You tell me.”
Sinuk's features sharpen with an odd sort of yen. She sets her eyes on Brun and works that out in her head. It doesn't take her long, and the dawning light of realization, Brun has to admit, looks very good on her.
“He's not gonna want your blood money,” Sinuk says, under smiling eyes.
“No,” Brun says. “He'll hate it. But I have to try.”
The scarf is an albatross around Brun's neck. Sinuk is pulling the looter through the Norbastern tundra in silence, broken only by an occasional, concentrated breath. The dread that had vanished with a full night's rest returns in force, and suffocates them both.
Brun barely notices Sinuk's grip tighten around the wheel until the looter's wing inclines, slightly, to the right. The woman's voice is steady. “Last call. I can fly 'til we drop.”
“It's a little late for that.”
Sinuk gazes at her out of her peripherals. She shuts her eyes and straightens out. “Thought I'd try.”
The hum of the looter fills out the ensuing silence. Brun studies the heath through the cockpit, its grassy summertime swells sweeping softly beneath the kite's pinions.
Brun looks over at Sinuk. The woman's eyes are fixed on the horizon. She glances sidelong at Brun, and beckons her over with a quirk of her head.
Brun gets up and rounds the cockpit. Sinuk taps the wheel with her thumb. “Lemme give you my number.”
Brun squints at her. “With what phone?”
Sinuk grabs Brun's wrist, guiding her to the other half of the wheel. With her free hand, the woman fishes around her hoodie pocket. “Got paper?”
“Um,” Brun looks between the wheel and the rest of the looter. She thinks better of it, and offers her arm. “Here.”
Sinuk sticks her lip out. She bites off the cap of a marker and gently turns Brun's hand over, writing on her inner arm. She mutters, through the cap, something that sounds like “Don't lose it.”
Sinuk caps the marker and stows it, before replacing her hand on the wheel. Brun stalls, for a moment, letting their palms ghost one another. She lets go. “You don't make it easy to.”
“Said I'm coming back, didn't I?” Sinuk grins.
Brun blinks. “Yeah.”
She returns to her place at the window. The world is beginning to look familiar, and that familiarity is not comforting. The umbral spine of the mountains, the auburn fields, scatterings of pine needles from equally needly pines-- They're by all means pleasant, even beautiful things that Brun can appreciate on the surface, but they are colored deeply by the promise of home.
Sinuk pulls the looter low to the fields and uses the mountains as cover. She can get away with that in the kite; its exhaust leaves behind naught but three trailing strings of light over the valley.
Brun recognizes the staggered limestone wall, the clearing, the ridge that trails low from the mountains as they bow to the tundra. She could drop from the looter now and walk back to camp, find Castoff yelling at a screen, Darrow drumming her fingers against the cartel's bird as she sounds out the tundra's silence with symphonic metal.
Brun bites her lip. No, Darrow must be at Castoff's neck right now. At Falx, Thiam, Sato, the lot of them. She's probably carving up and down the ship while everybody tries to keep their head down (but not too down, or they'll miss the looter, and then she'll be really mad.)
It comes as some surprise, then, that Brun's unseeing eyes fix on a tiny, black speck in the heart of the clearing. Darrow's gaze is trained on the cockpit window like a hawk. Brun drops out of view and chokes.
“Fuck!” She hisses, struggling to untangle the scarf from her neck.
Sinuk raises an eyebrow at her. The scarf hits Sinuk's face with soft flump.
To her credit, the looter doesn't even twitch. But as the cowl peels off and drops to her lap, both of Sinuk's eyebrows are raised. “She can't see you. The windows are tinted.”
Brun's nose crinkles under the strain of her snarl. “You are not taking this seriously!”
Sinuk blinks. The anxiety searing Brun's stomach is doubled over by a tiny twinge in her heart. She just chewed Sinuk out on Darrow's account.
“That woman really is bad for your health,” Sinuk says, as the looter bellies the heath. “Here-- You take the wheel, I'll get the stand.”
Brun nods for lack of breath. She steadies the wheel, but struggles to do the same for her heart. It would be a shame if the panic attack kills her before Darrow does. Sinuk lingers behind her, spooling the scarf under her arm before dropping down from the looter.
Darrow's voice doesn't carry over the low thrum of the kite, if at all she speaks-- and that's probably for the best. But Sinuk's does.
“Hold on,” She says.
Brun's heart skips a beat. Hold on. Like Darrow is knocking politely on their parlor door, dropping in for a spot of tea and gossip, and Sinuk is in the middle of pulling scones out of the oven.
God. I am going to die today.
Sinuk pulls herself back into the looter. Brun must be visibly shaking, because the woman immediately closes in on her. She claps one hand on the wheel, and one roughly on Brun's shoulder.
“Hey-- Hey,” She says, voice dipping into that sonorous hum. She gently presses Brun's face into her shoulder. “I'll do all the talking, okay? All you have to do is stand there and look pretty. You can do that, right?”
Brun gives a muffled croak. Sinuk puts an inch between them. “Pardon?”
“I said 'That's your job.'” Brun musters a weak smile. She snaps the scarf from under Sinuk's arm, and drapes it around her neck.
“Heh.” The dopey grin is back. Sinuk looks down at Brun, with fondness that she supposes has always been there.
The looter slumps into the clearing. In the next breath, Sinuk is gone-- clambering instead up the side of the bunks.
Brun blinks. “What are you--?”
Sinuk fishes the length of broken rope from the netting. She drops back on her heels, and like clockwork feints left, swings right, slips deftly behind Brun. She cuffs one arm, then the other, and loops the rope around Brun's wrists.
Brun's spine goes straight as a pike. “Okay. Okay! This is happening!”
“Woulda got this outta the way earlier, but that would be weird,” Sinuk says, as she ties a snug knot. “Sorry, love.”
Sinuk licks her palm and runs it through Brun's scalp. That causes her to lock up completely. Sinuk slinks back around Brun, sticks her hands on her hips, and appraises her three-second handiwork. “Now look mad!”
Brun laughs, once. Dazed, but not insincere.
“It'll do.” Sinuk flashes her a wide grin. “Showtime.”