“Think we’ll see any of them again?” Plen asked when they’d arrived back the dosshouse room they were sharing. He began stripping down for the night, almost smacking Faraji in the face during the process; the room was so small he thought it must have been built around the bed, or the bed brought through the door in pieces and assembled inside. “Sorry.”
Faraji brushed away the apology like an annoying insect. “The both of us? Probably not. Even if another ship had enough berths for all of us, or the new captain wanted to keep us all, you said you were thinking of leaving anyway. Of going home.” The ‘o’ of ‘home’ sounded impossibly round, like it should roll out of his mouth in the shape of a ball.
“I got a letter, dated a month ago, says my sister and her husband have died and I’ve been named guardian of her daughter, and if I don’t go home, she’ll be stuck with my uncle Increase, which I can’t allow.”
“Why? Would he beat her?”
“No—nothing like that. I hold nothing but the deepest respect for my uncle, but he has never been affectionate.” Plen lay down gingerly on the bed, half expecting something to leap out and bite him. But nothing did, and although the place stank, the mattress was surprisingly without lumps or hollows. Almost comfortable, even. “How about you? Planning on sticking with this life?”
“Perhaps,” Faraji said, settling himself beside Plen. Shoulders pressed together, the two of them almost fit. “I have no home to go to, no trade besides that of sailing.” He said it easily, evenly, his voice that of a man who’s had years to come to terms with this, but Plen still felt a small stab of guilt for asking—he’d known the answer already, if he’d stopped to think about it.
“Would you want another trade?” Plen shifted himself over so that he was mostly propped up against the wall, rescuing Faraji from the danger of falling off the bed: a small and silent apology. “When I was little I wanted to keep bees, but sailing paid better.” And with his father’s debts, that had made the decision for him.
“I have often thought that a life spent growing things would not be a bad one,” Faraji said slowly, each word placed with care, as though he was building something by speaking it. “To live somewhere with trees and solid earth and seasons that do not change as we sail through them, past them.” He sighed deeply enough for Plen to feel it. “Yes, Plen, I want another trade. No ‘would’ about it.”
Plen didn’t have any response to that at first, so he just sort of hummed in acknowledgment. But then a thought began sort of tickling at him, and eventually he opened his mouth and let it out. “You could come home with me, you know.”
Faraji’s breathing had been slowing, evening out as he presumably drifted towards sleep, but now it stopped for a long, almost frightening moment, his body going stiff. Just as Plen began to wonder if perhaps he’d said something other than he’d thought, something that shouldn’t be said, Faraji rolled over so that they were practically nose-to-nose. It would’ve been awkward if they hadn’t spent so many cold nights huddled together to keep from freezing.
“No, I don’t know. Plen, if this is your idea of charity—”
Despite the many stories they’d told each other over the years, Faraji had never said much about his childhood, the people he grew up with before he wound up on the Great Good Fortune. But Plen had paid enough attention to figure out that they were pretty big on earning things themselves, to the extent of viewing gifts with suspicion—as insults, even. And while Faraji had shed most of his past, that seemed to be one bit of it he’d hung onto.
“No, not at all.” Out of the confines of the bed, Plen would have been waving his hands around for emphasis, but as was, he had to make do with fisting his hands in the sheets. “This is my idea of preventing myself from making an utter hash out of taking care of my niece. You know we work best together—and from the times my sister wrote to me before she died,” and oh, his sister was dead, and again it was like getting stabbed, “it’s definitely going to be work.” Don’t make me do it all by myself, he didn’t plead, despite the way it filled his throat and mouth. He didn’t want Faraji to come with him out of guilt or pity.
“We do work best together,” Faraji agreed, but left it there, rolling back over so that they weren’t breathing in each others faces. This gave Plen another couple of inches of bed, which he accepted in grateful silence. He shared none of Faraji’s compunctions about accepting gifts, whatever the motives behind them.
Sleep came eventually, while Plen was halfway through making plans for returning home (with Faraji).