The Tattoo

Title: The Tattoo
Author: youcantseeus
Contact info: youcantseeus12@gmail.com
Beta: Oshun
Spoilers: For books 1-4.
Characters: Flick, Seel, Pell, Cal, Orien
Word Count: 22,000
Disclaimer: The following story is a work of fan fiction based on the Wraeththu series by Storm Constantine. I am not the original creator of the Wraeththu universe nor do I own most of the characters and locations contained in this story.
Summary: Flick attempts to make a statement with a tattoo. Seel is not pleased.

Chapter 1

Sometimes, I could read Seel like a book.

For example, when Colt and Stringer came over and proudly showed us that they’d gotten rough tattoos of one another’s names across their arms, I knew that Seel was fuming. He may have smiled and made light comments through gritted teeth, but I knew that later that night I’d be the one who would have to listen to him ranting about how foolish it was to have somehar else’s name on your arm forever and how it echoed human possessiveness and human love.

As it turned out, Pell and Cal got to hear him rant as well. Seel barely waited until Colt and Stringer were out the door before he started in.

“Could you believe that?” he asked the room as I started washing the dinner dishes. “I knew that letting that har charge for tattoos was a bad idea. Now we have hara making stupid decisions.”

Cal looked up from where he was sharing breath with Pell. They were always hanging all over one another. I was surprised that it didn’t bother Seel more, given how he felt about Cal, but he seemed determined to show that he was above caring. “What are you going to do, oh mighty Seel?” Cal asked in a playful voice. “Ban tattoos?”

“Of course not,” Seel said, throwing himself into a chair across from Cal. “I just would have thought that Colt and Stringer would have a little more sense. It’s not like they’ve just gone through althaia. They’re old enough to behave seriously.”

“Maybe that’s why they did it,” I said.

Everyhar looked at me. “Well,” I said, quickly, “Colt and Stringer have been together a long time. They seem pretty solid.” I was receiving a patented Seel glare. Seel was very good at glaring. “Maybe they feel secure enough about their – their feelings,” I had almost used to word “love” which would have been a huge mistake, “that they think they’ll last.”

The glare was only getting worse. “It’s sort of sweet in a way,” I babbled on. “I mean, for some people.”

Not for Seel, obviously. “It is not sweet, it’s disturbing,” he said and then he pointed at Pell and Cal. “And I better not catch you two down there getting matching tattoos anytime soon.”

Pell made a face. “No way,” he said. “Did you see those tattoos? They were hideous.”

I rolled my eyes as I dried a plate with a dishtowel. Of course Pell’s main objection would be aesthetic.

“You can get them magically removed, you know,” Cal said to Pell.

“But it leaves a scar,” Seel put in.

Seel continued brooding long after Pell and Cal had gone to bed.

“Matching tattoos,” he muttered. “Can you imagine feeling so sick about somehar that you’d want his name tattooed on your body?”

I finished wiping down the counters. “No,” I said. “I can’t.”


— — —

Pell came home early.

Seel and Cal were taking aruna in Cal’s room upstairs and Pell wasn’t supposed to know about it. So who got to distract him? You guessed it – me.

“Where are you going?” I asked as Pell headed for the stairs the stairs. “I thought that you’d be receiving instruction from Orien all afternoon.”

“He let me go early.”

“Where are you going?” I repeated as Pell turned back toward the stairs.

He gave me a strange look. “I’m going to go find Cal. I thought he might want to do something.”

I put a hand on his shoulder, feeling panic flutter in my belly. “Come and help me in the garden,” I said. “Seel told me to weed the vegetable patch and he’ll be angry if he comes home and finds out that I didn’t do it.” This was actually true. Seel had a large-ish garden behind his house filled with exotic flowers, vegetables that tasted like acid and herbs that were helpful for various reasons. Seel and I had planted all these things earlier in the year, but I ended up doing most of the actual gardening after they were planted.

“Well … okay,” Pell said. I knew that he thought Seel put too much work on me and I felt guilty for appealing to his kind feelings toward me just to keep him from finding out about Cal and Seel. Despite feeling sorry for me, Pell wasn’t much on manual labor, so I gave him a big wicker basket and let him follow me around the garden as I pulled up weeds.

“Do you like gardening?” Pell asked me as I dumped an armful of weeds into his basket.

I shrugged, going back to my work. “Yeah. Sort of. Not the weeding – that part is pretty annoying – but the planting, the watering, slowly seeing the results of all the hard work I’ve put in. It’s rewarding, you know?”

Pell wrinkled his nose and shielded his eyes from the harsh, late morning light. This wasn’t the best time of day to weed a garden. “I always hated farming. I’d do anything I could to get out of it. My brother, Dorado was always like ‘the cable crop this, the cable crop that, the cable crop is the only thing that sustains us, Pellaz’, but I never listened to him.”

I laughed. “I guess always farming one crop would be different. A garden like this has more variety. Will we have tomatoes or peppers with dinner tonight?”

“Peppers I hope,” Pellaz said. “And who will take the credit for this bountiful harvest? Seel, that’s who.”

I rolled my eyes. Pell occasionally dropped hints that I should stand up to Seel. “Seel and I have an agreement. Seel works hard – it isn’t like he’s lazy.” Unlike Cal, I wanted to add. “He works so hard in the town that he needs somehar to do this type of housework for him. I find housework enjoyable. It isn’t a bad agreement.”

I really meant those words. I did find cooking, cleaning, gardening and repair work enjoyable. I wasn’t a particularly outgoing har and performing simple tasks in comfortable surroundings gave me time to think. I didn’t mind doing the work that I did – but I would have appreciated some words of gratitude or praise. I was lucky to get even simple courtesy from Seel these days.

Pell gave me a look that said that he didn’t believe me, but made no further comment. We emptied the weeds in one corner and then I picked a few peppers and some lettuce and placed them in the basket for dinner that night.

When we went back inside, we found Cal and Seel sitting at the kitchen table. It was incredibly obvious to me that they’d just taken aruna, though they didn’t touch. I wondered how Pell didn’t see it. They were sweaty, although the house wasn’t warm. Their clothes were on sideways and their faces were flushed. Oh, and Cal looked incredibly smug while Seel looked reluctantly happy.

Pell didn’t seem to notice anything amiss from the way that he draped himself all over Cal. Seel, of course, had to turn his attention away from them, so he looked at me.

“You know what would be really nice right now?” he asked. “Some lunch. Actually, it would have been nice an hour ago.”

This was another thing that sucked about our arrangement. Not only was Seel dismissive, but he insisted on commenting when there weren’t three meals a day on the table exactly when and how he liked them.

“You were busy an hour ago,” I said, which seemed to shut him up. If he thought I would bring him and Cal sandwiches in bed, then he had another thing coming. Even I had limits.

Pell was now sitting in Cal’s lap. “What about you, my Pellaz?” Cal asked. “Are you hungry?”

“Not for food,” Pell said meaningfully. Cal growled and bit his neck. Pell and Cal lived with us and they really didn’t do any more work around the house than Seel, but at least they weren’t always complaining.

Cal was looking at Seel over Pell’s shoulder, probably trying to elicit some sort of jealous response. He shouldn’t have bothered. Seel was jealous of Pell and Cal, but he’d never show it. Jealousy would mean that he cared, jealousy would mean that he loved.

“How about some sandwiches?” Seel asked me again.

I looked at him and then looked back at Pell and Cal who were now completely occupied with one another. I made the sandwiches.

That night, Pell and Cal went to bed early, leaving me to clean up dinner dishes and Seel to lie on the couch, swirling a glass of wine in his hand and slowly smoking his cigarette. He had a way with those cigarettes. He’d hold them up to his mouth, squeezed daintily between two of his fingers in a way that seemed to oppose the tough image he projected. He’d close his eyes as he breathed in the smoke and then smile as he exhaled, as if the act of smoking held some sort of sensual pleasure for him.

I came into the living room, wiping my dishwater hands on my apron. “Pell came home early this afternoon,” I said, trying to be nonchalant.

“Oh?” Seel’s tone was utterly uncaring. He was enjoying that cigarette. Sometimes, when he smoked, he’d even grunt low, under his breath in a way that reminded me very much of the sorts of noises he made during aruna.

“You and Cal were upstairs … you know. So I took Pell out to the garden.”

Seel opened his eyes. “Oh. Thanks, I guess.”

I was quiet for a moment trying to think of how to word what I wanted to say. “Pell is my friend,” I said, at last. “I don’t like lying to him.”

Seel sat up and looked at me. “I don’t like lying to him either.”

“I – what?” I had been expecting an argument.

“You think I like lying to Pell? He’s my friend too. It’s Cal that’s being stupid. He’s afraid that Pell will be led by human beliefs, but Pell needs to learn that he’s no longer human. It’s just aruna – no big deal.”

“I guess.” Nothing between Cal and Seel was “no big deal.” There was too much history between them for that.

“You should mention this to Cal,” Seel continued. I winced. Cal and I generally avoided speaking to one another. We weren’t friends, but hara didn’t realize it because we were friends with a lot of the same people and weren’t openly at one another’s throats.

“Cal wouldn’t listen to me,” I said. “But you could –”

“I’ve tried,” Seel snapped.

Twilight shadows filled the corners of the room. Silence lingered in the air between us. “Next time – next time I might not feel like lying to Pell,” I said, at last.

“Flick,” Seel said, in warning.

“Well, I might not! No har thinks about how I might feel about all this.”

Seel casually crushed his cigarette in the ashtray at his side. “How do you feel?”

I felt used. I even felt a little rejected. Cal and Seel went to great lengths to hide their relationship because Cal was concerned about Pell’s feelings. But Seel didn’t even care enough about me to be the tiniest bit discreet about it. “I don’t know. You’re always with Cal and it’s been – it’s been a few weeks since you and I were together.”

I sat down beside Seel. “Do you need aruna?” he asked.

I flinched. It was a medical question. “No, I don’t need it.” Wanting it was something else.

He leaned back onto the couch. “You stay at the house so often. I’m not stopping you from finding other partners, you know. In fact, I think it would be a good thing for you. It’s not healthy to be with one person all the time.”

It wasn’t as if Seel was the only har that I’d ever taken aruna with – but I didn’t make one night stands a normal occurrence and I didn’t really have another regular aruna partner, unlike Seel who never seemed to be happy unless he was sleeping with at least three hara at the same time.

“Maybe you and Pell could –” Seel began.

“No,” I said, quickly. That would just be too convenient for Seel. Pell and I could occupy one another while he had Cal and no one would get his feelings hurt. Except it wouldn’t be true. I considered Pell a good friend, but our relationship was platonic at its core. Even if we took aruna together, it would remain platonic. Nothing like the complex, confusing, intense thing that Cal and Seel had.

Seel put his arm around me and I didn’t brush him aside. “Do you want to come to my room tonight?” he said, close to my ear. “I’ve missed you.”

That was about as close to a romantic declaration as Seel ever got. It was also true that he’d said it because I’d practically begged him to pay some attention to me. I was pathetic.

“Okay,” I said, unhooking my apron.

The thing about Seel was, he was amazing in bed. I think that’s half the reason I stayed with him. The weird thing was, he didn’t even have to try. It wasn’t training or wild and exciting new things that made him good at aruna. It was some irrepressible quality of himself that seeped under my skin, made me want him so badly, made those nights I spent in his bed some of the most intense of my life.

Everyhar who knew us thought that I was the soume partner, but that wasn’t always the case. Seel enjoyed being soume and I was ouana as often, if not more often, than him. Hara often didn’t realize that you could be soume and still be in charge. Seel was an expert at that.

After aruna that night, he lounged against the bed and smoked one cigarette after another, not even bothering to cover his lean body with a stitch of blanket. I could never be like that – so gorgeously unselfconscious. He smirked at me.

“Was it good for you too?” he asked.

I traced my finger along his leg. Seel had great legs. “I think you know the answer to that.”

He smirked again and blew a few smoke rings. I imagined, just for a moment, what my name would look like tattooed on his body, maybe onto his ankle. Pointless to wonder. I kissed his ankle. He laughed and told me it tickled.

“What do you think of me?” I asked, fishing for a compliment. I knew that he wouldn’t tell me that he loved me because Seel didn’t believe in love, but I wanted some declaration.

He sat up and gave me a long, considered stare. “I think that you’re more than you allow hara to see,” he said. “I don’t think that most of the hara here can imagine what sweet little Flick is like when you get him alone in a bedroom.”

I felt myself blush. It was a good thing he said, right? It was complimentary and considerate, but perversely, I always wanted more of Seel. I always wanted him to give what he couldn’t give. “But not better than Cal, right?”

Seel flinched and I could see the answer in his eyes. “Flick …”

I shouldn’t have asked. “No, it’s okay,” I said quickly, turning away from him. He said my name again, but I didn’t answer, I just curled up into a ball on the bed. I heard him sigh.

We were both silent for a few minutes, but I could sense Seel thinking. “I didn’t mean that you aren’t great,” he said. “It’s just that Cal … well you’d understand if you’d ever been with him.”

“Sure,” I said. Seel wrapped his arms around me. I didn’t shrug him off.

“I’ve never lied to you,” he whispered in my ear. “I don’t want to tell you that I feel something only to have you find out later that it was a lie. That would be worse than if I’d never said it at all.”

In all fairness to Seel, this was the truth. He had always been honest with me about who he was. He had told me from the beginning that he’d been incepted into the Uigenna and that he believed that the experience damaged him. He told me about his relationship with Cal and how deep it ran. He told me that he could be moody and temperamental. And he told me that he wasn’t looking for a deep, exclusive relationship with anyhar.

He couldn’t tell me that he felt anything for me – why? Because he might be lying or because he would be lying? There was a big difference between those two words. I turned and looked up into his eyes. “I understand,” I said.

He smiled, reassured. I guess I could have been like Pell, after all, who was crazy over Cal because he was completely oblivious to who Cal really was. But then again, Pell and Cal seemed so happy together.

— — —

The next week, a sickness came to Saltrock, a sickness concocted by humans. I was actually glad that it occupied Seel so much that we didn’t have time to rehash the issues that we’d already argued about. But then one day Seel came home, his mood considerably more cheerful, his shoulders straighter and his head held higher.

Of course, I asked if he’d found a solution to the sickness. He sat down at the kitchen table, looked at me and said, very matter-of-fact; “Yes. Grissecon. Cal and I are going to perform it.” There it was. Not even an attempt to cushion the blow.

I turned away from him and started chopping onions for lunch.

“I volunteered,” Seel continued. “Saltrock is my project. I’m responsible for all these hara, so I should be the one –”

“Any particular reason it has to be with Cal?” I asked.

Seel hesitated before answering. “Orien said that it would be best if both the hara involved were of Ulani caste at least and there aren’t a whole lot of hara in Saltrock who are. It wouldn’t work with you, for example. And I – I asked Cal to do it. I thought it would work better with somehar I’m familiar with. Even Orien agreed with me and you know how he feels about Cal.”

Had Seel ever participated in grissecon before? I couldn’t remember. My eyes were watering from the onions – I told myself that’s why they were watering.

“Where is Cal now?” I asked.

“I think he’s telling Pell. Look, pretty well everyhar in Saltrock is going to be at the grissecon. I want you there too,” he reached out, still sitting in his chair, and touched my arm. Why did I never pull away from him?

Cal was telling Pell.

Somehow, I think we all thought that Cal and Seel’s public grissecon would be harder on Pell than on anyhar. If this was the case, then he did a better job of hiding it than any of the rest of us. Cal and Seel were both antsy, careful not to touch one another, talking about the sickness and its consequences. The sickness itself was something I hadn’t thought much of – hara were so rarely ill that I stupidly assumed that it would just evaporate on its own. Now, I realized how naïve that was. Seel had seen the victims.

“You two will be on your own here this evening,” Seel said, gesturing at Pell and I. “Cal and I have to undergo purification for the ritual starting tonight. Think you’ll be alright here in the house while we’re gone?”

I rolled my eyes, slightly insulted. I handled the house all by myself most of the time; Seel didn’t need to act as though we’d be helpless without him.

But that wasn’t what I said, what I said was: “You two should at least eat dinner before you leave.”

“We’re supposed to be fasting,” Cal said, while he chewed on a piece of bread with butter on it.

“We are fasting,” Seel said, deftly taking the bread from Cal’s hand and giving it to me to throw away. Seel wasn’t even smoking which showed me how serious he was about this whole ritual.

The room dissolved into awkward silence. Cal brooded, Seel seemed nervous and I could tell that I radiated sourness, however I tried to hide it. Only Pell seemed normal. He casually started asking questions about magical components of the procedure, as if nothing were out of the ordinary. Seel answered his questions as best he could.

After about an hour, Seel and Cal left the house together. I looked over at Pell, feeling awkward somehow, though I don’t know why – Pell and I had been alone in the house plenty of times and were normally very comfortable with one another. “I guess I should get started on dinner,” I said.

“You don’t have to cook just for me,” Pell said – his voice sounded almost shy. “We can have sandwiches or something.”

I thought about it. “No, I think I’d like a hot meal,” I said.

“Do you want any help?” Pell didn’t normally offer to help cook any more than Seel did.

I shrugged. “I guess. If you want.”

I prepared a pasta dish. Pasta was relatively hard to find in Saltrock and Seel was probably saving it for some special occasion, but somehow this occasion did feel special. I let Pell make the garlic toast. We didn’t talk much, avoiding bumping into one another.

When the light began to dim, I lit some candles at the table. I opened one of Seel’s bottles of wine in hopes of loosening the mood, but I wasn’t much of a drinker and Pell certainly didn’t drink at the rate of Seel and Cal, so we just sipped at the wine. The food tasted good, though. “Does it bother you?” I asked, abruptly. “About Cal and Seel?”

Pell shrugged. “Not really. The grissecon is very important.”

I wondered if Cal had only told him about the grissecon and not about all the other times he’d taken aruna with Seel since arriving in Saltrock.

“I know it’s important,” I said. “Just –”

“I’m not an idiot, Flick,” Pell interrupted, crossing his arms in irritation. “I know that there’s something between Cal and Seel. I sensed it from the moment I saw them together. It’s just that things between Cal and I – well, they’re amazing. Obviously, if he feels something for Seel, that hasn’t affected how he is with me.”

“You feel secure, you mean,” I said, pushing my food around my plate with a fork. I hadn’t eaten much.

Pell tilted his head to the side as if thinking. He’d get such thoughtful looks, sometimes. “Yeah. I guess so.”

Must be nice, I wanted to say, but I didn’t.

Pell looked down at his plate. “This is delicious.”

After dinner I went upstairs to Seel’s room and sat in front of his vanity, opening all his little bottles of cosmetics. I didn’t often wear cosmetics. At most I’d put a thin layer of kohl under my eyes, even that only occasionally. Tonight, I found that I wanted to look special, but I had no idea where to begin.

I dipped my index finger into a tube of sticky color and applied it to my lower lip. It looked awful and I ended up smearing it on my cheek, so that I had to wipe it away with cloth.

“Making yourself pretty?” Pell’s voice came from the doorway. I nearly jumped out of my seat.

“I’m no good at this sort of thing,” I mumbled, starting to stand.

“No, no, don’t leave,” Pell said. “I’ll help you.” He walked over the vanity and started riffling through Seel’s cosmetics. Pellaz hadn’t been har for long, but he already had way more experience with this sort of thing than I did. “Come on,” he said, bringing several containers over to the bed, “I’ll do your makeup.”

There was something embarrassingly girly about all this, but we were supposed to be half female, right? If the traditionally feminine duties of cooking and keeping house didn’t bother me, then why should this? I sat down on the bed, cross-legged and Pell did the same, facing me. He held up a tube of lipstick.

“That’s bright red,” I complained.

“And you have fair skin and dark hair which makes it perfect.” I must have looked doubtful because he added: “Oh, I won’t use too much.”

It was surprisingly intimate having another har apply cosmetics to my face. Pell leaned in close, a mere inch from my face to examine his work. He gently rubbed at my cheeks, my lips, my eyelids to blend the color. He’d make me close my eyes and then turn my head this way and that, trying to find the best light.

“There. Done,” he said after about twenty minutes. He handed me a small mirror and I gaped at my reflection.

“I look so different,” I said.

“You’re beautiful,” he told me. I think we became aware at the same moment that we were sitting very close and that my hand grasped his arm. We both pulled away and sat in silence for a long moment. “I’ve only ever been with Cal,” Pell said. He walked out of the room.

If it hadn’t been for the sickness, I thought as I walked to the central square where the grissecon would take place, the air in Saltrock would have been positively festive. The setting sun glowed red against the desert, the scent of flowers permeated the air which was odd since Saltrock normally smelled of acid and dirt. Hara were walking to the grissecon with their arms linked or thrown around a partner’s waist. Halfway there, Pell reached out to hold my hand.

Once we got to the square, we had to wait some time for the last-minute preparations. I chatted with Pell and almost forgot why we were there until Cal and Seel came out. They looked even more incredible than usual. Seel so often kept his hair restrained that I forgot how amazing it was – vibrant and long and almost alive. Cal’s violet eyes looked as if they could glow in the dark. I could hardly believe that the two of them were the same Seel and Cal that I talked to and argued with everyday.

They wore thin, translucent robes, but discarded these as they embraced. They obviously weren’t embarrassed about taking aruna in front of so many people because they were completely absorbed in one another, barely aware of anyhar else’s presence. It was painful for me to watch – and yet my eyes kept being drawn back to the sight of the two of them locked together.

Every now and again, I cast sidelong glances at Pell, but his eyes remained locked on Seel and Cal; he positively drooled. I kicked the dust at my feet. Pell looked beautiful in black leather, but I was being stupid when I had thought that something would happen with him. Perfect Pell. Perfect Seel and Cal. No wonder I was just their servant.

I watched as the grissecon ended, the Orien collected the essence and Seel and Cal fell back into one another’s arms. I looked over at Pell to find him looking at me. He took me in his arms and I felt better as I surrendered to him, passive soume. I barely felt self-conscious about taking aruna in front of so many people. Everyhar else was doing it and it wasn’t as if the attention of the whole room was focused on Pell and me.

By the time I came to myself enough to look around, it was dark, only a few torches illuminating the air. There were a few shadowy figures locked in embrace, but apparently most of the hara had gone home. Seel and Cal were still in the center of the gathering, but somehar had thrown a blanket over them. I had heard hara say that the atmosphere of grissecon was like a drug, especially if you partook of it through aruna. I thought that maybe this was true – as I looked around everything seemed either blurry or much more focused than usual.

The couple beside Pell passed him a cigarette. He accepted, but coughed when he inhaled. “That’s not tobacco,” he said with a laugh.

“Give me some,” I said. Pell raised his eyebrows, but passed it to me. We both giggled as I inhaled and then coughed.

Then, the couple next to Pell passed us their flask.

By the time we walked home, I had to lean on Pell who was only slightly less intoxicated than me. We kept bumping into objects on the street in the darkness and laughing as if our clumsiness were the funniest thing in the world. Somehow, in our inebriated confusion we turned down a side street. I paused when I saw a rough house with a little cardboard sign in the window.

“Look Pell, tattoos,” I said, reading the lettering.

“So?”

“So … let’s talk to the tattoo har. I bet he can do all sorts of designs.”

“I don’t think –” Pell began, but I was already knocking on the door. In some dim corner of my mind, I knew that this wasn’t at all like me. Knocking on the door of a strange tattoo-giving har in the middle of the night – Seel would have laughed if somehar had told him I’d done it. Flick was just too safe and timid to do any such thing, he’d say. I knocked harder.

The door opened and an intimidating har who was covered in tattoos looked down at me. “What do you want?” he asked. He even had tattoos on his shaved head.

“Uh …never mind,” I said, turning to leave.

“He wants a tattoo,” Pell said, coming up to stand beside me. “Well, no use in being a chicken now,” he whispered when I glared at him.

The tattoo har looked us over and then gave a short snort that I assumed must be a laugh. He motioned us to come in and told us his name was Spear. The place was dirty and the rational part of my mind told me to run away, but I just smiled like an idiot as he handed me some pages with drawings of tattoos on them. “You know what you want?” he asked.

“No,” I said, taking the seat he offered.

He snorted again. “You kids got some way of paying for this?”

I tried to think. Had I brought anything to barter with? No.

“Don’t you know who he is?” Pell said to Spear in his most arrogant tone of voice.

Spear was not impressed. “Yeah, I know who he is. He’s Seel’s bitch. You think I care? If you’re paying, hand it over, if not, get out.”

I looked down at his spiked boots. “Did you hear that, Pell? I’m Seel’s bitch. Everyhar knows it. I don’t know this har, but he sure knows who I am.” I pointed at Spear, but my hand extended out a little further than I intended and I poked him in the chest. He glared at me.

“You’re not –” Pell began, but I interrupted him.

“That’s what my tattoo should say,” I slurred. “Seel’s bitch. Wouldn’t Seel love that?” I thought of how pissed off Seel would be and suddenly that was all I could think of and I wanted him to be pissed off.

“He’d kill you,” Pell said but then he started giggling.

“Payment,” Spear said, impatiently.

I took a silver bracelet off my wrist. It belonged to Seel but I didn’t think it was particularly special to him and if it was, I didn’t care.

Spear looked at it and bit it. “You only get one word,” he said in the tone of one who was long suffering. “Is it ‘Seel’ or ‘bitch’ that you want?”

I looked at Pell and we both burst into laughter.

Chapter 2

I awoke the next morning to find the desert sunlight streaming through the window and hitting my face. I rolled over and saw Pell curled up beside me. I couldn’t remember bringing him there, but I wasn’t complaining. Tousled hair and a bare chest was a good look for him. As if aware of my scrutiny, Pell’s eyes fluttered open.

“Wha – what?” he said, sitting up.

“I was having the weirdest dream,” I said. “I dreamed that we went to see a tattoo har.”

Pell looked at me, confused for just a moment. Then his mouth dropped open. “Flick … I don’t think that was a dream,” he said. He reached out and put his hand on my chest and suddenly I was aware of a pain there, like I’d been scratched.

“I – what? Oh God.” I ripped off my shirt. My chest was bandaged. Pell and I looked at one another for a moment and I wondered if my face looked as comical as his. I peeled away the bandage.

“Oh God, oh God, oh God,” I moaned. Even upside down, I could see the small black letters. Seel’s name was etched onto my chest, just above my left nipple.

Pell reached out to comfort me, but at that moment there was a knock. “Flick!” Seel’s voice came through the door. “Open up.” The handle to the door turned. Luckily, it was locked.

“What do we do?” Pell asked in a panicked voice.

I didn’t know what I was going to do, but for the moment I threw on a ratty old T-shirt and answered the door.

Seel was standing there wearing a pair of brown leather trousers and nothing else. His hair was still unbound and cascaded down his shoulders. “Cal and I are ready for breakfast,” he said.

I rolled my eyes. Of course that would be why Seel came to my room. “I’m sort of with somehar right now, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

Seel looked behind me and I looked back as well to see Pell lounging on my bed, his eyes so wide that I wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d fallen out of their sockets and started rolling around the floor. “It’s just Pell. I’m sure that he’s hungry too. Aren’t you, Pell?”

Pell managed a shrug. He looked supremely guilty, but Seel didn’t notice.

“You do realize that Cal and I fasted all day yesterday. We’re completely famished,” Seel said.

“Bread’s in the breadbox. Eggs are in the basket,” I told him without much sympathy.

Seel crossed his arms, lowering his eyebrows in his most intimidating glare. It was the expression that he wore when he asked hara who wanted to come to Saltrock what they would contribute to the community.

“I want pancakes,” he said.

I closed the door in his face.

“Flick!”

“Just give me a minute!” I yelled. Then, I turned to Pell. “Not a word at breakfast, okay?”

“Okay,” Pell agreed. “But when are you going to tell him?”

“I’m not.”

Seel and Cal didn’t bother to put on shirts to come to breakfast. Neither did Pell, actually. Hip-hugging leather trousers with no shirt was the fashionable look at Seel’s kitchen table that morning. I kept watching them, uneasily, as I made the pancake batter. What if they asked me to join them in their state of shirtless abandon?

Cal and Pell started sharing breath which I thought was pretty rude. I brought Cal a plate of pancakes and cleared my throat loudly. I was mortified when he reached out and grabbed my arm. “Why Flick,” he said, sarcastically. “I didn’t even see you there.”

“Let go of me,” I said, pulling away and placing the pancakes on the table in front of him.

“You look lovely today,” Cal went on as if nothing had happened. “That whole grimy blue jeans thing really works for you.” He winked at me.

I tried my best to glare at him, but I was never that good at glaring. The morning kept getting stranger. Cal had never flirted with me before. Usually, he paid very little attention to me at all. Cal was good at sniffing out trouble – I hoped that Pell hadn’t accidentally revealed too much about the prior evening when he shared breath with Cal.

Probably, though, Cal just wanted to draw me into some sort of orgy with him and the others. I wasn’t about to let that happen. Partly because it would just be too weird, but mostly because it might involve me taking off my shirt. The only thing I dreaded more than Seel’s wrath was Cal’s mockery.

Seel was in an exceedingly good mood. Once he got some pancakes in his belly, he started whistling. He walked up behind me and placed his hands on my hips. “Thank you for making me pancakes,” he said in my ear. His voice was teasing, intimate. He so rarely thanked me for anything that I suppose I should have been grateful, but I knew that his good mood was a result of a night of incredible aruna with Cal.

I pulled away ever so slightly. “You’re welcome.” I could not keep the sharpness out of my voice. Seel looked over at Cal who shrugged. Why did they have to choose today to start paying attention to me? I just wanted to go back to being quiet, invisible little Flick. At least, until I could get the tattoo removed.

“You should come to my room later,” Seel said, casually.

A direct invitation. “Pell and I have errands to run in town today,” I told him.

“We do?” Pell asked.

I gave him a significant look and placed my hand over my chest in what I hoped was a discreet fashion. “Yes. Remember?”

“Oh – oh, yeah,” Pell said. “The thing.” He downed his juice as the other two turned their eyes on him.

“What errands could you two possibly have to run in town?” Seel asked. He was suspicious. My tattoo burned a hole in my chest. Very soon, Seel would notice it. He’d somehow be able to see right through my shirt. I knew that this was ridiculous, but that didn’t help alleviate my slightly sick feeling.

“Just errands,” I said.

Cal laughed. “Okay. You two go run your ‘errands’ in town and Seel and I will stay here and run some ‘errands’ of our own.” Cal had apparently decided that “errands” was code for aruna.

Seel laughed, his suspicion dispelled. Thankfully, that was the end of the conversation.

I dragged Pell along with me to Spear’s place. Spear laughed when he saw the two of us standing in his doorway. “Sorry, no refunds,” he said. We followed him inside.

“After that shoddy work?” Pell said. “The letters are crooked!”

Spear inspected his hands. “He kept squirming. You try working on a moving canvas.” By the light of day, he was even more intimidating. I saw that the tattoos on his arms were a swirling bluish-black pattern.

“Listen, I have to get it removed,” I said.

Spear sat down in a chair. His home was filthy; garbage on the floor, dust covering the furniture. “It takes a fairly powerful magical ritual to remove them. That means you’ll need approval.”

“Approval?” My heart fell. “From who?”

“Orien is shaman.”

I tried to picture myself going to Orien and telling him that I’d gotten Seel’s name etched into my skin. I imagined that he’d be disappointed in me and would try not to show it. Orien was a good friend, but he was the last har in the world who would understand getting drunk and having somehar’s name tattooed on my chest. “No. Not Orien,” I said.

Spear grinned. “Well, the only other har who can give approval is Seel …”

“Fuck,” I said. Pell looked at me. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” I repeated.

Spear grinned wider. He had a gold tooth.

“Look,” I said, wheedling, “isn’t there some way that you could just – you know – do it anyway?”

The har shrugged. “Hey, usually, I’d say no problem, but I’m not about to get kicked out of Saltrock. I like it here. And I’m already on Seel’s bad side.”

I stood up, forgetting my fear of him in my desperation. “Yeah? Do you realize how much you’ll be on his bad side when he realizes that you tattooed his damn name onto my chest?”

“I don’t think so. I think that’s your problem.”

“Look, Flick, maybe we can talk to Orien,” Pell said, taking my arm and drawing me toward the door.

“You’d better,” Spear said. “Because that thing doesn’t come off until I get the okay.”

“Would a written note work?” Pell asked, sounding like an obnoxious school child.

“Nice try, but no.”

Seel was going to kill me.

“Well, that went well,” Pell said once we were outside, walking the dusty streets of Saltrock.

I made an irritated noise.

“We could talk to Orien,” Pell went on. “Or there’s always Seel.”

I couldn’t tell Seel any of this – he’d hate me or worse – he’d pity at me. He’d tell me callously that he didn’t have those types of feelings for me and that I was an idiot. “Seel? Are you crazy?”

“No,” Pell said and then he hesitated for a moment. “It’s just … he’s not as scary as you think he is. I bet if you just talked to him, he would –”

“He would not understand,” I said. “He’d be furious. You heard him the other night. The last thing he wants is his name tattooed on somehar’s chest.”

Pell shrugged and gave me an exasperated look. “We’ll go see Orien then. We have no other choice.”

The sun was high in the sky and the heat was starting to make me feel sick. The two of us walked to Orien’s house and started pounding on the door. No har answered. Orien had a small porch with a swing. I sat down in the swing and a black and white cat immediately jumped into my lap and started purring. Pell sat down beside me and an orange cat jumped into his lap. We swung in a dejected matter for a few minutes, petting the animals. The cats at Saltrock were very insistent. If you didn’t pet them, they’d dig their claws into your leg. It wasn’t exactly pleasant to hold a big, furry cat in the hot weather.

After a while, we saw Stringer walking by the house and Pell stopped him and asked him if he knew where Orien had gone. “Oh, he’s going to be away for a couple of weeks. I think he’s looking into the illness, trying to find out if it’s spread to other tribes.” I knew that Orien could communicate over distance magically, but it sort of made sense that he’d want to get out and see things for himself.

“A couple of weeks?” I asked.

Stringer shrugged. “That’s what he said. I’d have thought Seel would have told you this.”

“No, he didn’t,” Pell said. Of course, we hadn’t exactly told Seel that we were going over to Orien’s house to attempt to wheedle him into something. “I guess that we might as well go home now, though.” Pell stood up, dumped the cat onto the ground, and took my arm.

He kept a smile frozen on his face as Stringer walked away. Then he turned to me. “You’ll have to tell Seel now, Flick, you’ll just have to.”

— — —

I didn’t tell Seel. I just kept biding my time, hoping that Orien would be back soon, though I still didn’t know how I would pay for the tattoo removal. I went back to Spear and tried to bribe him, but he laughed in my face and informed me that my bribe was less than the normal cost of removing a tattoo.

I went to see Seel in his office. “I need money,” I said.

He didn’t look up from his papers, but he did snort. “Why do you need money?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

He still didn’t look at me. “Fascinating. The answer is no.”

“I seem to recall giving you quite a bit of money when I first came to Saltrock.”

When he finally looked up, his expression was exasperated. “And I seem to recall putting it to good use on things this community vitally needs.”

“Like expensive wall hangings for your house?” I gestured behind him at the colorful tapestry hanging above his head.

“You live here too,” he pointed out.

“Yes, but I didn’t get to pick out any of the furnishings. Despite the fact that it was my money.”

“Is that what this is about?” Seel asked me. “Did you see something in town that you want to buy for the house? Just tell me what it is and I’ll barter for it when I go out tomorrow.”

Something bothered me about this conversation and it wasn’t just the tattoo. There had never been a time when I’d asked Seel for a large amount of money before, but I’d always assumed that if I did, he’d trust me and respect me enough to give it to me. “It’s not something for the house.”

Seel narrowed his eyes. “Then what? Are you thinking of leaving me?”

“No! Why would you say that?”

“Why else would you need the money?”

“I can’t tell you, okay. Can’t we just leave it at that?”

Seel leaned back in his chair. “No. We can’t. The money that you gave Saltrock went into the community coffers and was spent long ago, Flick. I can give you trinkets to barter with or a little bit of cash. If you want any more, you’ll have to tell me what you need it for. Surely that seems reasonable to you.”

It did sound reasonable, but I couldn’t help but feel angry. There had been something creepy about the whole discussion. Seel wouldn’t give me money because he was afraid I might leave him – so his plan to keep me with him was to make me dependent on him for everything.

I walked out of the room. I started to think about what it might be like to leave him. Well, he was the one who brought it up.

I think that Seel must have felt sorry for upsetting me because, while he wasn’t one to apologize, he did make small, peaceful overtures toward me that evening. I hadn’t cleaned house all day and didn’t start dinner until it was almost dark, but he didn’t say anything. He sat down and ate what was put in front of him and even told me it was delicious. It wasn’t.

After dinner, he made me sit beside him on the sofa and he started rubbing my back with one hand, in an absent sort of matter. I was surprised because Cal and Pell were in the room and Seel usually wasn’t affectionate toward me in front of them. Pell kept giving me significant looks. I knew that he was wondering if Seel would find out about my tattoo.

At one point, Cal and Pell went to bed and Seel started kissing my neck. I knew I should stop him, but I hadn’t taken aruna with anyhar since the night of the grissecon and I needed it. “I haven’t seen much of you lately,” he said, his lips against my ear. “I want to fix that.” His hands moved to unbutton my shirt.

“No!” I said, pulling back, instinctively.

“Flick,” Seel said, with a sigh. “Is this still about the grissecon with Cal?”

“What? No. I just –” I took a breath and suddenly, inspiration hit. “I was just remembering when I first came to Saltrock. You lived in tent back then – remember?”

“Yeah. So?”

“So … we used to take aruna wrapped up in your sleeping bag on the floor. In the dark – no electricity and no candles. I sort of liked not being able to see you, but hearing your breathing, your heartbeat, and knowing that you were there.” I realized as I said it, that there was some truth to this statement, although I was mostly just using it as an excuse to take aruna without Seel seeing the tattoo.

“You want to be in the dark?” he asked with half a smile. “But I like looking at you and I like you looking at me. We have nothing to be ashamed of.”

“It isn’t about shame,” I said. “It is about feeling secure with somehar else.”

Seel shrugged. “Well, okay. I guess we can do it that way if you want. My room?”

I smiled at him.

Upstairs, I closed all the curtains so that even the moonlight couldn’t make its way into the room. I clawed my way to the bed and lay down. It was eerie, knowing that Seel was in the same room as me, but not knowing exactly where he was or when he would touch me. After about a minute, I felt the other side of the bed dip and I knew he was sitting beside me. I could feel energy building in my body. When he touched me, I could have died.

It was different in the dark. Not seeing his face, I didn’t have it in the back of the mind that this was the har I’d just argued with about money or dinner or housework. But I didn’t picture myself with somehar else either. There were no visuals, everything was pure feeling, sound, smell, movement. His hands and lips touched me everywhere. It seemed that he lingered a moment too long as he traced his thumb across my tattoo. I thought that the texture of the skin must have been different there. Maybe it was my imagination. I was soume that night, but I felt powerful. It was hard to feel powerful with Seel, even as ouana.

Afterwards, we lay wrapped in one another’s arms. His lips were against my neck and I could feel him smile. “You never tell me things like this anymore,” he said. “You know, things that you like in bed.”

He never asked anymore. “I guess it was different in the beginning,” I said. “You were supposed to be my teacher.”

He rubbed my back. “You can tell me, you know,” he said. “Everyhar has needs … fantasies, even.” His voice was drowsy. I would wait for him to drop off to sleep and then go to my own bed.

When I woke up, it was morning and Seel was rummaging around in his dresser. At first I felt nothing more than a sense of hazy contentment. Then, I remembered the tattoo and my hand flew instinctively to my chest before I realized that I was covered with a blanket.

Seel didn’t seem to sense anything off. “Have you seen my tan leather trousers?” he asked me, piling most of his clothes onto the floor. I’d have to pick those up later.

“I just cleaned them. They should be in the bottom right drawer,” I told him.

He looked some more. “I can’t find them. Get up and help me.”

I stayed where I was, of course. “Wear something else.”

He stood up and looked at me. “Flick! Why are you hiding under that blanket? Are you cold? Suddenly shy?” Before I could answer, he ripped the blanket away.

My hand was still covering my chest, but I could tell that he noticed something was up from the way he bit his lip. “What’s on your chest?” he asked, as if he were trying very hard to keep his voice calm.

“It’s nothing,” I said. “Never mind.”

He pointed at me. “It’s not nothing. There are marks there. Or writing.” I looked down and saw that my fingers had failed to cover the better part of the letter “L”.

Figuring that it was no use lying any longer, I slowly uncovered my tattoo. Seel gasped. “Is that real?” He hadn’t exploded yet, but I could tell he was about to.

I nodded. He looked at me for a long moment. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” he yelled.

I leaned against his headboard and curled my arms around my knees. “What — did you think it would be funny?” he continued to rant. “Did you think that I’d be pleased to see that you’d gone and done something so idiotic?” I was quiet. “Answer me,” he snapped.

I shrugged. “I was drunk.”

“You were drunk? You never get drunk. When did you get that – that thing?” He gestured at my tattoo with one hand as if put off by the idea of looking at it.

“The night of the grissecon,” I said, in a small voice.

He looked at me with hard eyes. “Get up,” he said.

“What?”

“Get dressed. We’re going to get that thing removed.”

I crossed my arms protectively over my chest. “No,” I said. I had been longing to get the stupid tattoo removed since I’d got it, but now that Seel was going to make me do it, it felt different.

“Excuse me?”

“I said no. It’s my body. You can’t tell me what to do with it.”

He glared at me. “It’s my name,” he said. “You think I give a damn what you do with your body? For all I care you can tattoo ‘idiot’ across your forehead. But leave me out of it.”

I shook my head and started looking around the floor for my jeans. It was hard to dress with Seel looking at me like he wanted to stab me, but somehow I managed. Seel dressed as well and then he grabbed my arm and led me out of the room.

Cal and Pell were lounging on the sofa downstairs and they both looked at us curiously as we came into the living room. I could tell that they’d heard Seel’s yelling. I hoped that they hadn’t heard that much of it – it was humiliating to be yelled at all the time.

“What’s the problem, lovebirds?” Cal asked.

“Oh, nothing,” Seel said. “Flick just made a mistake and he’s going to fix it.”

Cal’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh really? And what sort of mistake would this be?” He was clearly intrigued. I felt heat rise to my face.

I thought that Seel, in his anger, would tell him, but he didn’t. “None of your business Calanthe,” he snapped.

We walked in silence to Spear’s house. I felt that it was a walk of shame and that hara were coming out of their small, tin houses to look at the idiot who dared to try to get too close to Seel. Of course, this was ridiculous. No har else could have known yet. But that didn’t stop me from feeling as if we were a spectacle. It had to be obvious to observers that Seel was angry, at any rate.

He pounded on the Spear’s door until he was let inside. I immediately went and sat down on the tattoo table, having resigned myself to my fate. “You have to take it off,” Seel said to Spear.

They both looked at me. Spear smirked. I didn’t understand why he seemed to find all this so amusing. “Sure. It’ll cost you, though. He gave me a silver bangle to do the thing. It’ll cost you ten times that to remove it.”

Seel glared at me. “He doesn’t have that much to spend.”

“I’ll bet you do. Unless you want him to be walking around with your name on his chest forever, then I’d suggest that find some because I can’t do it for less than that.”

Seel jerked his head back and his hair hit me in the face. He was a force to be reckoned with when he was angry. “How would you like to get kicked out of Saltrock?” he asked.

Spear crossed his arms. Nothing ever seemed to rattle him. “I was told that if I worked hard and didn’t break any of the rules that I could stay here. Are you telling me that tattooing your name on his chest was breaking the rules?”

Seel stamped one booted foot on the ground. I knew that Spear had him. Seel could act hard, but he would never throw somehar out of Saltrock for something so trivial. He certainly didn’t mind threatening it, but Seel’s bark was worse than his bite. They argued some more before Seel suddenly stomped out of the small house. I shrugged when Spear looked at me and I followed Seel.

He walked swiftly down the narrow streets of Saltrock. I caught up with him and we walked side by side for a while. “God you’re cheap,” I said, finally.

He looked at me furiously. “I wouldn’t give any other har in the community a bucket of silver to spend on tattoo removal, why should I give it to you?”

So now I was just anyhar.

When we got back to the house, Cal met us at the door. That was unusual. “Okay, let’s see it,” he said with a grin.

I crossed my arms protectively over my chest and gave Pell a look. He shrugged. “I had to tell him. He was relentless!”

“I just knew something was up,” Cal said. I walked in the direction of the kitchen in an effort to get away but Cal followed me. “Come on Flick, I’ve got to see it!” he said.

“Not a chance,” I said. I attempted to find something to cook. It was closer to lunchtime than breakfast, but I decided to fry eggs.

Cal threw himself into one of the kitchen chairs. “Seel, make him show me the tattoo,” he whined as Seel walked into the kitchen. This comment was designed to annoy both Seel and myself.

Seel sat down beside Cal, now the picture of calm — a far cry from how he’d been a few minutes ago. “Mind your own business, Calanthe,” he said.

Cal stood up and walked over to me. He took a berry out of a bowl I’d set out and popped it into his mouth. “You’ve got guts, I’ll give you that,” he said. “Can I please see it?” He turned the full force of his smile on me and suddenly I wanted to do whatever he asked. Maybe that was what hara meant when they talked about Cal’s charm.

“No,” I told him.

— — —

Seel avoided me for the next few weeks. We saw each other at meals, but otherwise we barely spoke. Sometimes, he would give me a furious look and I would know that he was thinking about the tattoo.

We didn’t take aruna. Once, when I was feeling lonely, I flirted with Seel after dinner. He just gave me a hard look. “Don’t even start,” he said.

“What?” I asked, blushing. Cal and Pell were still lounging around the living space. They were occupied with one another, but they both looked up at Seel’s sharp tone.

“I don’t want to have to look at that – that thing on your chest right now. It’s a real turn off, Flick.”

Cal started laughing. Pell looked from me to Seel. I stormed out of the room. Even if Seel didn’t want to take aruna with me anymore, he didn’t have to be such an ass about it. I sat down at the kitchen table, alone. It was dark, but I didn’t turn on the lights.

Pell was arguing with Seel about me. I could only hear snatches of what they were saying. Pell told Seel that he wasn’t very nice to me. Seel seemed to think that I’d brought it on myself and that he was the wronged party. Seel was genuinely disturbed by the idea of name tattoos – it wasn’t just an excuse to fight.

After awhile, Pell came in and switched on the lights. “He didn’t mean it,” he said, sitting down beside me.

“He did,” I said. I shook my head. “You and Cal must think I’m such a joke,” I said.

Pell took my hand in his. “Don’t be stupid. You’re not a joke, you’re our friend.”

Well, I was Pell’s friend, anyway. Cal did think I was a joke – he had thought it from the moment he met me. His every look seemed to mock me, to tell me that I would never have Seel in the way that he had Seel.

Pell was stroking my hand. “I wouldn’t mind taking aruna with you tonight,” he said, looking at me out of the corner of his eye. “I had fun on the night of the grissecon.”

Pity aruna. Great. “You don’t really want to take aruna with me. You’d rather be with Cal.”

Pell shook his head. “Nah. I can be with Cal anytime. You should make Seel feel like he’s missing something. He takes you for granted because he just assumes that you’ll always be available.”

I rolled my eyes. If Pell was with me, then Cal would just seduce Seel and I’d be the furthest thing from his mind. Still, I was lonely. I took Pell’s face between my hands and shared breath with him and when he pulled away, his lips were full and luscious and his brown eyes seemed huge. Pell was beautiful and we got along so well. Really, he was my best friend. I should have been in love with him and terribly jealous that he was with Cal, but it wasn’t that way with us.

We took aruna in my room. I wondered if Seel was jealous. Probably not. Seel was above jealousy. Afterwards, I noticed that Pell’s face was forlorn as he looked out my window onto the dimly lit streets of the town. “What is it?” I asked him.

He smiled, slightly. “I have to leave Saltrock,” he said.

I sat up. “What do you mean? Why?” If Pell left the town then I would have few close friends here. I suppose that lots of hara considered me a friend, but most of them were like Colt and Stringer and were really Seel’s friends first and my friends only by association. Why would Pell want to leave? Everyhar knew that Saltrock was a safe haven.

“Orien says that I need more caste training and I won’t get it here,” Pell said. “I agree … but I like it here. And the world outside is so messed up right now from what hara say.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. I had been so caught up in my stupid tattoo troubles that I hadn’t even noticed that Pell was hurting. “You shouldn’t go. Stay here for a few more years, until things settle down some more.” I didn’t know any more about the world outside than Pell. We had both been incepted at Saltrock, but we’d heard enough from older hara to know that we were lucky.

Pell gave me a half smile and I knew that he wouldn’t stay. I put my arm around him. “You’ll be fine,” I said.

He smiled, tenuously. “Yeah. I guess Cal will be around to watch out for me.”

So Cal would be leaving too. I should have realized immediately, of course. Pell couldn’t go anywhere without Cal; they were a pair. I wouldn’t be that sorry to see Cal leave, but he wasn’t the first har I’d pick to “watch out” for somehar either.

“Seel will be sorry to see you go,” I said. Seel would be devastated at being separated from Cal, refuse to admit it and then become cranky and take it out on me. I thought that maybe I should just leave him. There was communal housing in Saltrock where I could live – not anything as nice as Seel’s house, but maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

Pell rested his chin on his knees. “I know. He’s pretty close to Cal.”

Was there a hint of jealousy there or was it just that I kept expecting it? I still didn’t think that Pell realized just how close Seel and Cal really were, but I wasn’t going to enlighten him after all this time. No matter how close Cal and Seel were, it was obvious that Seel was no competition for Pell in Cal’s mind.

The next few weeks were spent in planning for the big day when Cal and Pell were to leave. Seel was taking them as far as Greenling, a town not far from Saltrock. I would have liked to have gone to Greenling with them myself, but Seel made it abundantly clear that I wasn’t invited and I didn’t feel like arguing with him.

Pell’s dilemma seemed to be that he couldn’t bring many of the belongings that he’d acquired at Saltrock with him. One day, I tried to help him cram leather outfit after leather outfit into his duffle bag, but he couldn’t take very many clothes, not to mention his other possessions. After about an hour of packing, he sat with his belongings spread out beside him, looking at them in a dejected matter.

“Well,” I said, patting him on the shoulder. “You really aren’t going to need most of this stuff traveling across the desert anyway. Maybe you should give it to Seel for safekeeping.”

Pell shook his head slowly. “No,” he said. “I might as well just get rid of it. Who knows when I’ll be back in Saltrock? You keep my stuff.”

“Me?”

“Sure,” Pell said, with a shrug. “I can’t think of anyhar else I’d like to have it. He picked up a large copper headpiece that I’d seen him wear only once and held it against his hair. “I guess this is too big to take.”

“I guess so,” I said. I hoped that Pell didn’t expect me to actually wear his clothes.

As if reading my thoughts, Pell smiled. “Not really your style is it? Well, you can trade it at the market. Put it toward tattoo removal.”

I groaned and buried my face in my hands. “God. That dumb tattoo. I must seem like such an idiot to you.”

“You’re not,” Pell said. I didn’t look at him so he pulled my hands away from my face. “Flick, you’re not. Someday, Seel is going to wake up and realize what he has.”

I sighed and hugged him, but I wasn’t convinced. Why would Seel wake up when it was so much easier to stay asleep?

Chapter 3

When Seel took Cal and Pell to Greenling, I was left alone in the house for a few days. At first, I tried to keep myself busy but I ended up just sitting around a lot. I allowed the dishes to pile up in the sink and didn’t bother to sweep the floors which felt unbelievably good. Colt and Stringer came by to check on me one day, but I didn’t offer them dinner and they left after about an hour.

On the day before Seel was due back in Saltrock, I got the house back in order. I figured that he would be grouchy because he had to leave Cal and because he’d been away from Saltrock and would have a million things to do. It was amazing how quickly dust had found its way into every little nook and cranny. Seel had some decorative figurines on a shelf in the living area that attracted dirt like magnets. I polished the kitchen counter over and over again until it shone and I cooked some steak that I’d picked up from the market myself.

Seel greeted me quietly and when I told him that I had dinner ready he told me that it smelled good and we went into the kitchen. We ate together, but he seemed subdued. “How was the trip?” I asked him.

He made a tense gesture with one hand. “Good, I guess.” His mouth was curved downward into half a frown.

“Did Pell and Cal –” I began, wanting no more than to make light conversation about our friends.

“I don’t want to get into this right now, Flick,” he snapped.

“Fine,” I muttered. I wished that I could go into the kitchen and start cleaning something, if only to distract myself, but we had barely started dinner.

I watched Seel move his food around the plate with the fork. He didn’t usually eat much at meals. He couldn’t keep still long enough. “I didn’t mean to be so sharp a minute ago,” he said after we’d sat in silence for several minutes.

I shrugged. “It’s no big deal.” I couldn’t stay angry with him because I knew he was feeling depressed about Pell and Cal leaving. I was feeling that way myself. The house seemed quiet, lonely – the shadows were impossibly long.

He reached across the table and took my hand in his. I smiled a little. “Does this mean that you forgive me for the whole tattoo thing?” I asked.

He snorted. “God, you had to bring that up.” He looked at me and his face grew more serious. “Sure. I forgive you. I’ve been drunk before.”

“But you have zero tattoos,” I said, holding my hand up and curving my fingers into a zero.

Seel smiled. “No … but remember that awful nose ring I had when we first met?”

I laughed. “I always sort of liked it, actually. Why did you get rid of it again?”

Seel frowned and it was as if all the energy was sucked out of him once again. “It was ugly. And Cal always hated it.”

So that was it. I wasn’t surprised, but I was kicking myself for reminding Seel of Cal once again. He didn’t want to think about Cal at the moment and I didn’t want him to think about Cal at any moment, but conversations always seemed to lead in Cal’s direction. “I never would have taken Cal as the type to dislike something like that,” I said.

Seel shrugged and smiled a bit. “He has weird tastes. Sometimes, I think he liked the way I looked as human better than the way I look now. Bizarre.”

Seel rarely talked about being human so I latched onto the topic. “What did you look like as a human?”

I was afraid that he would be offended, but he just paused momentarily before answering. “Not so great. I wore thick glasses and all my hair was chopped off – like human boys, you know.”

Seel had worn glasses? It was strange to imagine, but not that difficult in a way. “I’ll bet you were cute,” I said.

Seel smiled, but there was pain in it. “That’s what Cal always used to say – that I was cute. I probably was. But now I’m beautiful, perfect, Wraeththu.”

That was true. Seel was beautiful and he knew it, but no har would ever describe him as “cute”. He was exotic, enchanting, dynamic, gorgeous, but definitely not cute. I was cute, or at least hara told me that and it always annoyed me. Maybe it had annoyed Seel back then. “And now you’re missing Cal,” I said.

“Of course I miss Cal … and Pell. Don’t you?” he asked.

“Well, sure –”

“They’re my friends. We’re allowed to miss our friends; we just can’t take those feelings to an unhealthy level. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Well, yeah.” Seel was very good at phrasing things in such a way that I immediately agreed with them and found that I’d somehow agreed to a far reaching concept that I’d never even considered before. But he couldn’t hide his unease completely.

“You seem different today,” I said. “Did something unusual happen in Greenling?”

Seel coughed, seeming to choke on his wine. “No.” Well, he had said he didn’t want to talk about it. I wondered if he’d found leaving Cal or even Pell harder than he’d thought it would be.

I let the subject drop and we were once again quiet. As I began to clear away our plates, Seel looked out the window. “I guess it’s just you and me now,” he said.

“Yeah.” It was not a happy thought.

I expected Seel to mope for days, if not weeks, or to at least work himself to the point of exhaustion, but the very next day, he came home from town earlier than I would have expected, walked brusquely into the living room and announced that he wanted to take aruna with me.

“Um, okay,” I said. I was in the middle of some heavy duty cleaning and I’d pushed the furniture all around the room. I was up to my elbows in dust and wasn’t exactly feeling sensual.

Seel clapped his hands at me. “Come on. I meant now.”

I could feel my eyebrows shoot up. I’d been longing to take aruna with Seel for some time, but it was wrong of him to just stroll in and demand it after ignoring me for weeks. I took the rag I’d used to tie up my hair off my head and wiped my hands on it. “You might try a little seduction, you know.”

He put his hands on his hips. “Flick, I’m tired,” he said. “I don’t feel like going through a bunch of annoying outdated rituals just to get to what we both want – the aruna. Are you in or not?”

We went to Seel’s room and Seel threw himself onto his bed and then lounged back to look at me. “Take off your shirt,” he said with a smirk.

So he was in a commanding mood tonight. I lifted my T-shirt over my head and tossed it into an ornate chair in the corner. Seel looked at me and his eyes traveled downward to my chest. I shifted my weight nervously. This was the first time Seel got a good look at the tattoo since he’d discovered it.

He smiled at me. “Come here,” he said. I walked over to the bed and sat down. He moved close to me and slowly began to trace his fingers across my tattoo. “Why is the ‘S’ crooked?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, blushing. “Spear said I wouldn’t stop squirming.”

He laughed and leaned his head on my shoulder. “I’m sorry Flick, but that is one ugly tattoo.”

“I know.”

“Right over your heart?” he asked, giving me a funny look.

I hadn’t thought of it that way. “I guess so.”

He reached across the bed to turn off the lamp and I felt a bit disappointed — I thought he was doing it because he didn’t want to look at the tattoo — but a moment later, I felt him press his mouth against my chest and flick his tongue over the letters. I sighed in pleasure.

Seel was always unpredictable. He made me feel safe and cared for that evening, but when I woke up in the middle of the night, he wasn’t at my side. Figuring that this was a hint for me to leave, I put on my clothes and began to walk back to my room. I heard movement in Seel’s office and I stopped beside the door and, after several moments of indecision, knocked. There was no answer, but something made me open the door anyway.

Seel was sitting at his desk, his head buried in his hands, a bottle of wine beside him. The moonlight glinted off his multicolored hair. I wanted to reach out, hug him to me, sooth him. “Seel?” I said in a tentative voice. “Are you okay?”

“God, I just sent them off with smiles and fond wishes,” he said. It was evident from his voice that he was drunk.

“Who?” I asked, picking the bottle of wine up from Seel’s cluttered desk. It was red; a merlot. Old, human stuff. I longed to sort and straighten the papers that were scattered around the bottle of wine as well, but Seel’s desk was the one thing in the house that I wasn’t allowed to clean.

“Cal and Pell,” he snapped. “I always told Cal that he was being stupid and paranoid about Pell’s inception and Thiede and Orien … but I don’t know that, do I? There was something off about Pell’s inception wasn’t there?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I knew vaguely that Seel and Cal had argued about this in the past, but I hadn’t known that it had affected Seel so strongly.

Seel rubbed his forehead. “I can’t get this feeling out of my mind … like I’ve sent them off without the proper protections or I didn’t caution them strongly enough or something.”

“I think that Cal is just making you paranoid like he is,” I said.

Seel looked up at me with cold eyes. “What do you know about Cal?”

“I –”

“Nothing. You don’t know anything about him. Whatever else you might say about Cal, he has good instincts.”

“I didn’t say he didn’t, I just –”

“I just, I just,” Seel repeated in a mocking voice. “Why don’t you just go away, Flick? You’re no help – as usual.”

“Fine,” I snapped, turning to go.

“Leave the bottle,” Seel said and I looked down to see it still clutched in my hand. I put it on the desk.

— — —

Over the next few weeks, Seel was surly and short to me. Some days, he worked himself to exhaustion and he’d come home drenched in sweat and covered in dust. Some nights, he’d drink himself into a stupor and go to bed alone. We took aruna occasionally and I always hoped that it would make Seel forget whatever was bothering him for a time, but it never did.

As if Seel’s bad mood wasn’t enough, everything that could go wrong at Saltrock seemed to go wrong at once. The weather turned strange. There were dust storms that penetrated even Seel’s well insulated house and devastated some of the shabbier dwellings in the community. I spent all of a day trying to keep the dust from creeping in through the cracks under the doors and windows only to have Seel come home, covered head to foot in it.

“I’m going to go take a bath,” he announced blandly.

I looked at him. His eyes shone darkly through the brown dust. “I can help you wash your hair if you want,” I said. Seel’s hair could be a hassle at the best of times. He always said that he envied me my straight, manageable black hair, but I thought that his was much more beautiful.

“Okay,” he said, without expression.

I harbored the faint hope that I could turn the bath into a sensual experience, but it soon became apparent that this would not be the case. The water in the small tub turned brown and then black. I rubbed soap vigorously into Seel’s hair and then wrung it out several times. It felt brittle in my hands; it had lost its luster.

“It feels like things will never get back to normal,” he said.

“They will,” I told him.

He looked at me, streaks of dirt on both sides of his face. “Shouldn’t you be making dinner or something?”

I went to make dinner.

After the dust storms came the flood. It was the first time I’d seen it rain much in Saltrock. Apparently several hara had built houses in an area that flooded, but which had always appeared perfectly dry. Seel woke me early one morning to tell me about it and to inform me that he had to go help those hara salvage what was left.

I stayed at the house because I always stayed at the house. With no Seel demanding breakfast, I went back to sleep and didn’t get up again until around noon. When I first moved in with Seel, I was eager to prove myself a competent housekeeper and whenever he was out of the house, I’d start some project. Now, whenever Seel left I was glad to get a break from his constant nagging demands and I’d just let the house go. That afternoon, I went outside and sat on Seel’s back porch. The rain had apparently been brief but fierce and things were still wet.

All sorts of exotic plants that I’d never seen before were blooming in Seel’s garden. Everything looked beautiful and different. I hadn’t seen a wet world since I left my human life behind. I leaned back in one of Seel’s carved rocking chairs and tried to picture myself doing this – enjoying these simple pleasures in this same place – in twenty years. It was impossible.

In twenty years would I still be Seel’s shadow, a ghost-like servant? I didn’t want that to be my life forever, but it was hard to imagine a life with Seel going any other way. Our relationship was perpetually stuck in that awkward place between casual roon friends and chesnari. It never moved.

After thinking in this depressing vein and admiring the outdoor beauty for an hour or so I went back into the house. No sooner did I step into the kitchen than Seel came home, mud up to his waist, with several friends in the same condition. I couldn’t help but cringe at the damage they were doing to the carpet and I knew that I’d spend a long time trying to get the stains out.

“Flick,” he said, looking at dinner dishes from the night before which were not only unwashed, but hadn’t even been moved to the sink. “The house is a mess. You should have known I’d have hara over.”

I shrugged, not really caring. “I guess you want sandwiches or something.” I didn’t intend it, but there was a hint of sarcasm in my voice.

Seel stared at me. “Look at me!” he snapped, gesturing to his ruined clothes. “I’ve been wading through sludge all day. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to want to come home to a nice meal, a house that doesn’t look like a landfill, and a har who does more than sit on his ass all day.”

I saw the other hara giving one another embarrassed looks. Clearly they had not expected this, but Seel didn’t hesitate to make a scene. “I’m sorry. Next time I’ll meet you at the door in high heels,” I said.

Seel didn’t laugh. This was why we needed Pell and Cal. If Cal were here, he wouldn’t be able to resist turning that last comment into something arunic and then Pell would change the subject or something. Without the others around, Seel and I were just left glaring at one another.

Finally, Seel shook his head. “You’re coming to help this evening. Everyhar in this community has come together to work on this clean up. I know you like to hide away, but in Saltrock everyhar has to work and if you won’t do it here then you can do it with the rest of us.”

It wasn’t fair of Seel to say that. I worked all the time – just because I hadn’t done much that morning didn’t mean that I never worked. Seel would expect me to sullenly do what he asked or to rush to the kitchen and start cooking and cleaning the way I always did.

I decided that I didn’t want to do this. I walked toward the foyer. “Where are you going?” Seel asked.

“Out,” I said. Let him wait at home for a change.

Once I was walking down the central street of Saltrock, I started thinking about where I should go. I wandered, seemingly by chance, by the quarters where new inceptees stayed. I looked inside the long tin house to see that there were about twelve beds to a room. Not the most private way to live and yet it was probably where I’d have to go if I ever decided to leave Seel for good. The worst thing was imagining myself seeing Seel almost everyday after I left. Saltrock was a small community and Seel always seemed to be everywhere at once. Maybe he’d have somehar else move in right away to be his housekeeper and I’d see that this was all I’d ever meant to him.

I went to the site of the flood and stood behind a building so I could watch the cleanup. Seel wasn’t exaggerating by much when he said everyhar else was helping out. There were dozens of hara moving about, some them cleaning or moving wet debris out of the way, some of them just looking at the damage. All the houses were still standing, but it was apparent that any possessions below waist level were ruined.

I caught sight of Seel piling some scraps of carpet into a wheelbarrow, going at it about twice as hard as anyhar else there. That was Seel – determined, resourceful, hard-working. There were so many things I used to like about him, so many things that had once attracted me to him.

After watching him for awhile, I decided that I better leave. I didn’t know where to go. I wasn’t ready to leave Seel for good, but I didn’t want to go back to the house either. I thought of going to Colt and Stringer’s house, seeing if I could spend the night, but that didn’t seem right. They were really Seel’s friends more than mine and they would want to know what happened between us.

I ended up on Orien’s doorstep. I knocked several times, but he must have been on the other end of town with the others. I sat down and began petting a cranky orange tomcat that wanted my attention. I must have dosed off because the next thing I knew, Orien was shaking me.

“Flick?” he said. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, sitting up. “Is there any chance I that I could stay here tonight? I sort of had an argument with Seel.” I smiled apologetically.

Orien looked down at me. “Sure,” he said. “Come on in.”

We went inside and Orien dug out some of his old nightclothes for me to wear. Then, he made me tea. I wasn’t used to other hara making me things, so it was nice even though the herbal tea tasted a bit like dirt. Orien’s house was different from Seel’s – less flamboyant, more serene. His rooms were very sparsely decorated, but didn’t quite give the impression of poverty. I sat on Orien’s sofa and we made awkward conversation.

“I’m thinking of moving into the communal house,” I told him after some time.

He sighed and sat his tea on a tiny side table. “Whatever Seel’s done, I think you should give him another chance.”

“Why?”

Orien looked at me. His gaze was so direct and yet it was rarely intimidating. His hair was in his eyes. Orien’s hair was always a mess and not in an artful way like Seel’s. “You’re a vital part of Seel’s household. He couldn’t do the important work that he does here at Saltrock without you. Out here, isolated as we are, everyhar has to work for the good of the community and I believe that the best way for you to do that is from Seel’s house.”

“Anyhar could what I do,” I said. I was a maid and I would be replaced within a week if I decided to leave.

“I don’t think so,” Orien said. “Do you know how many hara are actually good at housekeeping? Cooking and cleaning were never exactly skills valued among teenage boys, you know. And not just anyhar could put up with Seel.”

I couldn’t help but laugh a little. “I thought you’d be on his side.”

“I’m not on anyhar’s side, Flick,” Orien said. “I think that Seel is guilty of treating you with disrespect and I think you are guilty of trying to make the relationship into more than it is or should be. I heard about the tattoo.”

I rolled my eyes. Orien didn’t know the half of it. Seel was always on his best behavior around Orien. “It was just a stupid tattoo that I got when I was drunk. It doesn’t mean anything.” It didn’t upset me as much as I’d thought it would that Orien knew about the tattoo – he was always so understanding and patient, even if he didn’t agree with my choices.

“Still,” Orien said shaking his head, “it is like saying that you belong to him or something. Go back to Seel but be your own person – perhaps you should do more in the community or work on your spiritual development or something of that nature.”

He wanted me to get out of the house more. Seel claimed that he wanted the same thing, but he wasn’t satisfied with the way I kept house now – how would he be if I took on other activities and had less time to devote to cooking and cleaning?

The next day, I went back to Seel’s house. He didn’t apologize and I didn’t apologize. In fact, we basically ignored one another for the better part of a week, but eventually things took on some semblance of normalcy.

Whenever I slept with Seel after that, he’d rub my tattoo absently with his thumb. He stopped telling me to get rid of it. Maybe he was getting used to the idea. Almost everyday, I would take out the things that Pell had given me and wonder if they were valuable enough to cover tattoo the removal if I added them to what I already had.

Chapter 4

One day, Cal came home and told us that Pellaz was dead. Perhaps it was for the best that I was left to deal with news alone – Cal and Seel were sequestered in Seel’s room all evening. I went to my own bedroom and took out the things Pell had given to me one by one. I didn’t think I could sell them now. I went to bed and kept my crying quiet, but I didn’t cry much. No matter how many times I told myself he was dead, it didn’t seem real. It hadn’t felt final when he said goodbye – I’d always assumed that we’d meet again someday.

I sat on my bed with Pell’s clothes spread around me. After awhile, I was sure that Seel and Cal were taking aruna. I couldn’t hear them, but I could somehow feel it and I shouldn’t have been able to with my level of caste training. Although I had only spoken to Cal briefly, I knew that he was devastated. It seemed callous of Seel to want to be with him tonight. I eventually fell into a deep sleep.

In the morning, Seel seemed almost cheerful. He kept making such moony eyes at Cal that I was embarrassed for him. They both completely ignored me as I made them breakfast, but after they had eaten and Cal had excused himself, Seel came over to me to talk – about Cal, of course.

“He’s really taking it hard,” he whispered in my ear. “I don’t want you to make it harder on him by smarting off.”

I shrugged him off and then glared. “Smarting off? When do I smart off?”

Seel raised his eyebrows at me as if I should know. “Often. I know that Cal can be pretty sarcastic himself, but he needs our help right now.”

“What about Pell?”

Seel blinked. “What about him?”

“It just seems like you’ve forgotten all about him, that’s all.”

Seel crossed his arms. The morning sunlight streamed in through the wide kitchen windows and traced patterns of light in his multicolored hair. “Pell’s dead, Flick. I don’t know what you expect me to do about that. Cal is still alive.”

“Yeah. Whatever,” I said, beginning to collect dishes.

Seel threw up his arms in clear exasperation. “I can’t talk to you when you’re like this.” It seemed like we could barely talk to each other at all these days.

I wondered if some secret, guilty part of Seel was glad to have Pell out of the way. I knew that Seel was never as close to Pell as I was and couldn’t be expected to feel the same level of grief, but I could still remember the look in his face when I told him about Pell. I could tell that all he’d thought of was how it would affect Cal.

— — —

I let Cal seduce me one night. It was sudden for both of us, I think. Sure, Cal had sometimes flirted with me when he’d lived at Seel’s house before, but he’d never truly been interested. I had always thought that I was boring little Flick in his eyes. I hadn’t been all that interested in him either. He was too unnerving.

When Cal lived with us before, I never would have taken aruna with him without at least clearing it with Seel first. I checked my conscience twice and found that I didn’t care in the least whether or not Seel would be hurt or angry. I wanted to lash out at him and it scared me that I could feel that way about somehar I genuinely cared for. I pushed Cal onto my bed and he allowed me to take the lead. Once I was inside of him and I looked down into his eyes, it was different though. He was able to let go, to allow me to control him, but he could have broken me into pieces at any time. Even more than Seel, Cal was a powerful soume.

Afterwards, Cal stretched out and smirked at me. His smiles had always been sarcastic, but now they were more like grimaces. There was no pleasure in them. He touched my chest. “So this is the famous tattoo,” he said.

I didn’t say anything. I just shrugged. My lampshade was ripped and it cast dappled light over his features. His eyes were shaded, but his sneering mouth was as clear as anything.

“I have to admit, I never tried that method of getting Seel’s attention,” he said.

From what I’d seen, it was Seel who was always trying to catch Cal’s interest. “I didn’t do it to get attention,” I said. “I was drunk.”

Cal shifted on the bed, closed his eyes and yawned. “Sure.”

“I didn’t! Why – did Seel say that I did?”

“No. Seel wouldn’t talk about it with me.” Cal opened his eyes slightly, so they looked like slits. “He’s never going to give you what you want from him you know,” he said.

“I don’t want anything in particular from him.”

“Then why do you stay here? Are you the type who enjoys being talked down to? Do you have a passionate desire to scrub dishes? I don’t think so.”

Cal was right, of course, about why I stayed. He was probably even right that I would never get what I wanted. Sometimes, I didn’t know if I stayed because some tiny part of me still held out hope that Seel would change like Cal said or because it would be too much trouble to leave.

“Of course Seel can be very alluring,” Cal continued. “I think I believed right up until I met Pell that I’d be with Seel someday – chesna, you know. I had other loves, but in the back of my mind there was always Seel.”

I raised my eyebrows. Cal had lived with us for a long time, and I’d never believed that his feelings for Seel ran that deep. “That’s not the impression I got,” I said.

Cal sighed. “Oh, I know what Seel lets hara think. That it was all one sided, that he was foolishly in love with me and I used him and threw him away when I was done using him and he learned his lesson about the dangers of love. Right?”

Seel had never once said this to me, but somehow, through snippets of stories, it was the general impression I’d received. “I guess.”

“I don’t use hara. I’m always sincere.”

This was too much. “You’re using me right now! And you’re almost never sincere.”

Cal smirked again. “Okay, so maybe I do use hara. But that doesn’t mean I can’t love them. Seel uses you – a servant, a whore, and a punching bag all rolled into one.”

“Thanks. And Seel doesn’t love me.”

“No. But he could. If he would let himself. Which he never will.”

“Can you actually stop yourself from loving somehar through force of will?” I asked.

“I can’t. But if anyhar could do it, it would be Seel.”

That was true. We were both quiet for a long time and Cal closed his eyes. Because my bed was small and it was awkward for two people to sleep on it, I put my arm around Cal. I was starting to think he’d gone to sleep when he spoke again. “I wasn’t using Pell.”

I rolled my eyes. “Sure.” It seemed impossible that Cal wasn’t using Pell for something, I just couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

“It’s true. That was what made Pell different from all the others. With Seel, for example, I was always trying to drag him down to my level because I thought that was the only way we were ever going to be together. With Pell, I wanted to preserve his innocence, to do what was best for him.”

I was annoyed. Hara had told me before that I was a good listener, but I wasn’t really interested in delving into the deepest corners of Cal’s psyche. He was strangely attractive, bewitching even, but he didn’t hold the fascination for me that I knew he did for many others. Ultimately, Cal was a dangerous, damaged creature and I would much rather quietly soak in post-arunic bliss than learn anything more about him.

“That’s why I came to Saltrock, why we stayed here so long,” Cal went on. “I don’t fit in with pious hara like Orien, but I knew that I couldn’t see Pell get incepted into a violent tribe. I wanted to preserve every iota of his beauty and innocence.”

So he’d made a decision that was unselfish for once in his life. What did he want, a round of applause? “Go to sleep, Cal,” I said. He smiled or grimaced into the darkness.

I thought that Seel would be angry that I’d been with Cal, but if he was, he didn’t show it. One of the reasons we’d both done it was to elicit a reaction from Seel, but Seel amazingly didn’t get angry. Sometimes, he would look at Cal and shake his head and I knew that he was wondering what to do about his friend. Sometimes, he would look at me wearing his concerned face and I knew that he was thinking about Cal and I – not in a jealous way, but as if he were worried that I was being corrupted by Cal.

Sometimes, Seel would try to seduce me and sometimes I would allow myself to be seduced, but I felt less and less of a need to be with him. I always wanted to sneak off and take aruna with Cal. It wasn’t that Cal was better in bed than Seel, exactly, but he was like an addictive drug and the more I had of him the more I wanted. I began to forget about everything else in my life. I wasn’t even in love with him. It was more like I was under a spell – a spell that I was aware of but couldn’t escape from.

I realized how much things had changed when Seel came home during the mid-afternoon one day. I was supposed to meet with Cal at a big rock formation just outside of town. “Cal’s told me he’s going to be out most of the evening,” Seel told me. Whatever work he’d been doing must have been outdoors because he was dirty and sweaty. I was cleaning the kitchen and I poured him some ice water. “I thought I’d get cleaned up and then maybe you and I could have an early dinner. Sandwiches or something to give you a break. Then I thought we could go to bed early.”

This was more effort than Seel normally put into a seduction attempt, but all I could think about was Cal’s beautiful body and mesmerizing eyes waiting for me out in the desert. “I can’t tonight,” I said. “I already have plans.”

Seel narrowed his eyes. “What sort of plans?” I knew that he was aware of my relationship with Cal even though we’d tried to be discreet.

I shrugged. “Just plans, okay. Do I have to justify every second of my day to you?”

“Of course not.” Seel hesitated and then reached out to touch my arm gently. “I wish that you wouldn’t go, though.”

I pulled away. “Well, I wish a lot of things,” I said and I put down the dishtowel that I’d been using to wipe the counter. There was power in walking away from him, power in not catering to his needs. My relationship with Cal had changed things between Seel and I. Now, it sometimes felt like he was chasing me.

I left Seel at the house and went to find Cal. The rocks were taller than any of the buildings in Saltrock and they were already casting long shadows across the desert. Cal was sitting in the shade smoking a cigarette. “He didn’t want me to leave,” I said in greeting.

“And yet here you are.” Cal blew out smoke. He held his cigarettes differently from Seel – so careless, so casual. Seel smoked intensely, as if he didn’t want one speck of tobacco to go to waste. Cal would take a few puffs off his cigarette and then throw it away only to light a new one five seconds later.

Cal noticed my scrutiny. “Want a smoke?”

“You know I don’t.”

Cal shrugged. “You’re a goody-goody. Worse than Seel.” He threw his cigarette to the ground and stamped it out. “Come here.”

I went to him and we shared breath. It felt dangerous. I never knew if I fully enjoyed sharing breath with Cal, but I kept doing it anyway. “Were you with Pell here as well?” I asked him. He always took me to places he’d taken aruna with Pell in the past. It didn’t bother me as much as it should have.

He touched my lips with his fingers. “I was with Pell everywhere. Tell me, what was he like for you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Pellaz. You took aruna with him, I know. What was he like?”

I cleared my throat. I didn’t want to think about taking aruna with Pell, not when he was dead, but this seemed to be all Cal wanted to think about. “He was good.”

“I know he was more than good.”

I sighed. “He seemed special to you because you were in love with him. I only took aruna with him a few times. He was ouana all the times I was with him and it was quite an experience. That’s all I can say about it.” Sometimes I worried more about betraying Pell in this relationship with Cal than I did about betraying Seel. But surely I wasn’t betraying Pell. It was only aruna and Pell wouldn’t have been jealous of that. Even if what I had with Cal became more than aruna, Pell was dead. It shouldn’t matter.

Cal was beginning to put on weight again. He was somehow more appealing when he was half starved. He was ouana with me. Usually, I knew that he pretended I was Pell. I didn’t mind it – much. I told myself that this was his way of grieving or his way of moving on or some other excuse. That day, I think he was pretending that he was Pell. I could taste Pell on his skin, his lips. He was Pell and he was giving me the experience of having Pell inside me again.

Afterwards, Cal stared out into the desert. His eyes looked as if he could see a thousand miles. “Seel never liked Pell, you know,” he said, suddenly.

“What?”

“Seel never liked Pell. Pell was too naive to see it, but I could tell.”

“Seel didn’t dislike Pell! I hardly ever saw them fight.”

Cal snorted. “That doesn’t mean anything. Seel likes you and he fights with you all the time. He likes me and he fights with me. He didn’t like Pell.”

Cal’s backwards logic sometimes made sense. Seel certainly had maintained a careful distance between himself and Pell. “Maybe he was a little jealous of Pell. That doesn’t mean that he harbored some secret hatred for him.”

“Why would he be jealous of Pell?”

“You know why.” I looked over at Cal and he smirked.

“If anything, he was indifferent to Pell,” I said, thinking over how Seel had been with Pell in the past. He had been carefully polite to Pell in the way that hara are with casual friends, not people that they feel strong emotions towards.

“Ah-ha,” Cal said, as if I had proved some sort of point. “And why would he be indifferent to Pell? Seel always has strong opinions and they always show.”

I shrugged. I didn’t know where Cal was going with this conversation, but I didn’t like it. It was as if he wanted to blame Seel for something. “Seel doesn’t believe in jealousy. Maybe he didn’t want his jealousy to show so he covered it up with politeness and indifference.”

Cal stroked his chin like a human with a beard. “Maybe. Or maybe he didn’t want to get too attached to Pell because he knew that something was going to happen to Pell.”

I looked over at Cal. Was he trying to say that Seel had something to do with Pell’s death? “That’s disgusting,” I said.

“What? You don’t think it could be true? You seemed pretty pissed with Seel yourself earlier.”

I pulled away from Cal. Sometimes, touching him made my skin crawl. “Yeah, I’m pissed at him. He’s an ass. Doesn’t make him a murderer.”

Cal laughed. It was a cold sound. “I didn’t say he was a murderer. I said maybe he knew something. Orien definitely knew something.” He shook his head. “I need to talk to Orien some more, but Seel obviously doesn’t want me to.” Cal was trying to concoct some grand plot surrounding Pell’s death, but hadn’t Seel told me he was afraid for Cal and Pell after they left? It had bothered him greatly, I knew. Had it simply been because Cal had freaked him out like I’d thought at the time or had Seel known something about Pell that I didn’t?

Cal grabbed my arm. “What about you? Did you know something?”

He squeezed my arm so hard I thought it would bruise. “Let go of me,” I said. He let go. “I didn’t know anything.”

I left him looking out at the desert.

By the time I got home, it was dark and all the lights were off. I thought that Seel wasn’t there. I was wrong. He was sitting on a sofa in the living room, in the darkness. “How was he?” he asked me. I could tell from his voice that he’d been drinking.

“Um, he was …” I began and stopped. I didn’t want to describe aruna with Cal to Seel.

“Oh, relax,” he said. “I didn’t mean it like that. How was he emotionally? Any better?”

Cal seemed crazier every day. He spent most of his time wallowing in grief over Pell, but apparently he had now moved on to dreaming up wild conspiracy theories surrounding Pell’s death. “Not really,” I said.

Seel was quiet for a long time. I could smell smoke around him, though it was faint enough that it was a pleasant musk. “You’ll never be able to help him, you know. I can’t help him and I’ve known him forever.”

It reminded me of what Cal had said to me about Seel. That he’d never give me what I wanted. “Because I’m nothing, right? I couldn’t possibly be of any use to anyhar.”

The darkness was hard. “Cal likes to play games. You’re a pawn, that’s all. He’s using you to piss me off. I don’t know why he’s doing that but you can bet he has a reason.”

I left him and went to my room, glad to get away from both Cal and Seel for the moment. They felt like two heavy, oppressive weights that I was carrying.

However much Seel wanted to help Cal, he still had to work in town often. That left me alone with Cal in the house. I tried to avoid him when I wasn’t busy being seduced by him. He’d mostly stay in his bedroom or mope around the living room. I’d keep to the kitchen.

One afternoon, though, I was standing at the kitchen sink, washing dishes when I felt arms wrap around my waist. I must have jumped a foot into the air. I hadn’t even heard Cal approach. “Let’s go take aruna,” he said.

I was expecting Seel home in less than an hour, but Cal was too good to resist. “Okay,” I said, leaning against him. “My room?”

I looked up into his face. He shook his head. “I was thinking of Seel’s room, actually.”

“Cal!” I said, pulling away.

“What?” he said, smiling his horrid smile. “Where’s your sense of adventure? It would really piss Seel off.”

“And why would you want to piss Seel off? He’s worried about you.” Seel was probably the only har in Saltrock who truly cared for Cal. The others mostly put up with him for Seel’s benefit.

Cal leaned back and put his hands on his hips. “This is the evil Seel we’re talking about, remember? The one who treats you like a servant.”

“That’s why I want to piss Seel off.” I didn’t believe for an instant that Cal’s anger was on my account. “I asked about you.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. He wants me to just get over Pell but I’ll never be over him – never.” The way Cal’s face looked in that moment, I could believe him. Then he took my hand and pulled me toward the stairs. I followed.

We went up to Seel’s room and Cal pulled me to him. I was ouana but it wasn’t the best roon I’d ever had. I kept thinking that Seel would walk in at any moment and it broke my concentration. I would have been more comfortable in my own room, but Cal was probably trying to pretend that I was Seel or something stupid like that. As if he couldn’t have Seel anytime he wanted. As soon as we were finished, I started searching for my clothes.

“Where are you going?” Cal asked.

“I don’t want Seel to find us here,” I said. I looked at Cal and wanted to tell him to get up so I could make the bed. If Seel came upstairs and his room looked and smelled like aruna, then he would know something was up. I didn’t ask Cal to move because I knew he wouldn’t move until he was good and ready.

“If you’re always this fast, its no wonder Seel’s grouchy all the time,” he said.

“Ha ha,” I said as I pulled on my shirt. “We took aruna in Seel’s room. What more do you want?”

“I wanted to cuddle,” Cal said sarcastically, rummaging through his pocket for a cigarette. “Pell would have done it.”

“Pell would not –” I began before an idea occurred to me. “You took aruna with Pell in Seel’s room, didn’t you?”

Cal smirked. “I can neither confirm nor deny that statement.”

I groaned. “You’re hopeless.” I threw on my clothes and left the room, but I met Seel in the hallway. He had seen me leaving his room.

I backed against his door, knowing that I looked incredibly guilty. Seel picked up on it. “Cal in there?” he asked.

I didn’t answer, but Seel brushed past me and opened his door. I didn’t have to turn around to know that Cal was reclining on Seel’s bed, one of Seel’s colorful quilts covering him to the waist.

“Oh, hi Seel,” he said, obviously contriving his surprise.

“Get dressed,” Seel said. “Orien’s coming over tonight like you’ve been wanting.” He closed the door and then turned to me. I thought that he would scold me for being with Cal and I think Seel thought the same thing for a moment, but in the end, he just sighed. “You should get started on dinner, Flick,” he said.

I went downstairs and began cooking, but I couldn’t concentrate. I ended up breaking a mixing bowl, burning my vegetables and nearly scorching my hand off in the process. Even worse, Cal walked into the middle of my preparations and distracted me. I gave him a job to do – cutting the meat – to divert him. I stopped to watch him work for a moment, the smooth movement of the knife, his pale hair falling over his face. He looked demented.

I didn’t know why Seel had invited Orien over that night, but I had a feeling that it couldn’t lead anywhere good. Cal had something that he wanted to do, something that he
wanted to prove to Orien.

— — —

What happened was beyond all imagining. Cal killed Orien. Anytime a great tragedy happens, it seems like somehar says it doesn’t feel real. That was the way Pell’s death was for me. It wasn’t like that with Orien. I felt that he was dead, even before I cleaned his blood off Seel’s kitchen floor. It was all so horribly, grotesquely real that I knew it in my mind, my bones, my gut.

Seel came home covered in Orien’s blood that night. We drank a little and then went to bed. He held me in his arms, but we couldn’t offer one another any comfort. We had rarely held each other without aruna being involved. Maybe if we’d been closer to begin with, it would have been different. Seel didn’t question me as closely as he could have about the fact that I saw Cal right after Orien died, even though I think he suspected something.

It was a hot evening when we burnt Orien’s body out in the desert. Hara gave speeches about him, but I didn’t hear any of it. All evening, I felt that everyhar was trying too hard not to look at me. Maybe I was just paranoid or maybe more hara had known about my brief affair with Cal than I’d believed. That murderer had his hands all over me. At least I was never in love with him.

I looked over at Seel. The wind blew back his hair and the fire cast shadows over his face. His body was coated in sweat. He looked beautiful even in his grief, but somehow dreadful. He was a physical manifestation of everything I felt.

After the funeral, Seel and I went home. He sat at the kitchen table, an unlit cigarette in his hand. “I’ll make us something to eat,” I said, just to have something to say. I hadn’t done anything in the house since Orien’s death. Somehar had come to thoroughly clean up the blood, but the place was a mess. I didn’t care.

“Don’t bother,” Seel said.

I looked in the cabinets. There wasn’t much in them that I’d want to eat. I suddenly remembered the human custom of bringing food to family’s who had suffered the loss of a loved one. But hara didn’t have families and the whole community had suffered a loss.

“There’s nothing to eat,” I said.

“It’s okay,” Seel said. “Sit down.”

I sat down across from him. He folded his hands in a businesslike manner. “I think we should take aruna tonight,” he said.

“What?” I looked at him. I couldn’t have felt less sensual.

He scratched the back of his head and looked away from me. “I want to feel something different. I know that we can’t just go back to normal, but I want to feel that way.”

It was rare for Seel to talk about his emotions, but I didn’t experience anything beyond surprise. I wasn’t happy that he was opening up to me. I didn’t empathize with him for wanting to feel something. I wasn’t angry with him for failing to consider my feelings. I didn’t feel anything for him at all. That was unusual. I shrugged. “I guess we could if you want.”

He slumped in relief. “Okay. Good.”

We went up to Seel’s room. I was ouana because I sensed he needed that and because I knew I should care about what he needed. We moved together without passion. It wasn’t like aruna. We were mechanical; robots. I could smell ashes in his hair.

Almost immediately afterwards, Seel went into the bathroom and closed the door. I could hear him crying. I’d never seen him actually cry, though his eyes had often been red these last few days.

I went to Seel’s window seat and looked out at the town. Shabby little houses in a land of dust. I thought about what Seel had said about never being able to feel normal. I would never be able to feel normal in this house. It had been days and I still felt like I was wallowing in Orien’s blood everywhere.

That was the last time we took aruna.

I let the house get messier. It wasn’t important. It didn’t feel like my home anymore. Seel didn’t scold me. This could have been a great time to strengthen our relationship. We had both suffered and we could have drawn together to begin to heal. I could have stepped in to fill that gaping hole that Cal left in Seel’s heart. Seel was willing to let me in more than he ever had been before, I could tell. He needed somehar.

I couldn’t bring myself to care. It was ironic, really. Seel finally needed me just like I’d been wanting, but I didn’t want him anymore. Or I may have still wanted him, but I knew that everything was poisoned.

The next morning, I went walking through the town. I kept coming upon places where I’d taken aruna with Cal – the Nayati, the stables, the rock formation just outside of town. He’d had me in every corner of Saltrock. I didn’t think that I’d ever be able to walk through Saltrock’s streets without remembering it and I’d never be able to remember aruna with Cal without remembering what happened to Orien. I went to the communal housing units, looked in at the young hara staying there and realized that I couldn’t live there.

“Flick, Flick!” Stringer’s voice stopped me as I headed back toward Seel’s house. “Hey,” he said as I slowed down.

“Hey,” I answered.

“How’s Seel these last few days?” he asked.

I shrugged. I honestly didn’t know. “Okay, I guess,” I said.

He gave me a sympathetic look. I didn’t like how hara in the town looked at Seel and I as if we were about to break into pieces. They either avoided us or they wanted us to talk about it. Stringer fell into the last category. “You two should come over for dinner tonight,” he said. “It’ll do you both good to get out of the house.”

I sighed. “Sure. I guess – whatever.”

Stringer raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Really, Flick. Come over. It’ll at least give you break from the cooking – I know you like that.”

I didn’t tell him that I hadn’t been cooking so much lately. “We’ll see,” I said.

I started crying as I walked away from him. There wasn’t anything in particular about that moment that should have made me weep, but I did anyway.

I found myself at Spear’s tattoo place. I knocked on the door. “Come in,” he yelled.

I walked in. Spear took one look at my face and he sighed. “You still want it taken off?” he asked.

I nodded.

He bit his lower lip and I knew he was considering. “Okay,” he said, finally. “Things have been pretty rough around here lately. Come sit down.”

I sat down and Spear went to get another har who could help him with the tattoo removal. I closed my eyes and I didn’t open them when Spear came back in and explained about the tattoo removal process. I didn’t open them as Spear blasted the tattoo from my skin although it hurt a little – actually, it felt like burning.

After he was done, I put my shirt on without glancing at my chest and then shoved all the money I had in my pockets into Spear’s hand. It wasn’t anywhere near enough. I told him I would bring him more, but he told me not to worry about it. He had a compassionate side after all – but I didn’t want his compassion.

I went out to the rock formation afterward and by the time I walked home, it was dark.

“Where have you been?” Seel asked, as I walked in the door. “I’ve been worried about you.”

I stopped and stared at him for a few long moments. Then, I took off my shirt.

Seel’s soft intake of breath was not quite a gasp. “You got rid of it,” he said. It was not a question.

“Yeah. It’s what you’ve been wanting, right?”

Seel looked at the ceiling. “Yeah,” he said, finally. “It’s what I’ve been wanting.”

He turned abruptly and went into the bathroom. He turned on the water in the bathtub, so I couldn’t hear what he was doing. I wondered if he was crying again.

I went to my room to avoid Seel, but I found that I didn’t want to sleep just yet. I climbed out my window, onto the roof. It was an unusually cool night for Saltrock, but I didn’t go inside for a wrap. I lay back, spreading out my body, and looked up at the stars. I avoided looking at the town.

I knew then that I would leave Saltrock. I would get up tomorrow and pack my things. I would take one the ponies and go somewhere far, far away. There was little in my life to convince me that I should stay – there was only Seel and he wasn’t a good enough reason not to leave. Maybe, I would never see him again. But I could leave it all behind – all the heartache surrounding Pell and Cal, my failed relationship with Seel, Orien’s violent death – all of it.

I shivered as I slipped my hand under my shirt to lightly touch the place where my tattoo had been. There would always be a scar there.

Many Years Later …

“So,” Cobweb asked Ulaume, leaning back in his chair and smiling, “have you seen ‘the ink’ as Azriel insists on calling it?”

Azriel and Aleeme had just taken the blood bond. There was a big party afterwards, but as often happened, the first generation hara had gravitated to one room to allow the younger hara to have their fun. Ulaume and I were having after dinner drinks with Seel, Swift, Cobweb and a few of their friends that I didn’t know very well. Oh, and Cal and Pell were there. Cal and Seel were supposedly getting along well enough to be in the same room together, but I noticed the way they maneuvered so that they wouldn’t have to speak to one another. Some wounds took a long time to heal.

Ulaume groaned at Cobweb’s words. “Yes. I’ve never been much on tattoos myself, but those ones are exceptionally lovely.”

I winced. Before they were bonded, Azriel and Aleeme got matching name tattoos. What they did wasn’t really like my rash, drunken decision. For one thing, their tattoos were beautiful – they’d been done by the most expensive tattoo artist in Galhea. Aleeme had spent months researching different types of lettering and coloring, having somehar draw him several different designs before he decided on what he wanted. At least that’s what he told me afterwards – he didn’t inform me beforehand that he planned to get a tattoo.

The tattoos were also fairly large. The entire back of Aleeme’s right shoulder was covered. The first thing I’d said when he showed me was; “That’ll leave a big scar if you ever want it removed.”

My son had given me a strange look. “What an odd thing to say,” he said, with a laugh. “I’m not going to have it removed.” He probably wouldn’t. He and Azriel were very close and, perhaps more telling, they were close after going through a lot pain. It’s much easier to stay with somehar when things are good.

“Personally, I think tattoos are gaudy,” Cobweb said, drawing me back to the present. “But there’s just no reasoning with young hara sometimes.” I shifted in my seat and tapped my fingers on the glass tabletop beside me in a nervous fashion. I realized that I didn’t even know where I was in the house – Forever seemed to have no shortage of artfully decorated rooms which all had names like “the lavender bedroom” and “the red salon.” They started to run together after awhile. This was probably “the glass room.” Huge glass windows looked out onto the lush gardens.

“Well,” Ulaume said. “I guess if you’re committed enough to bond in blood with somehar, then you’re committed enough to have his name on your body permanently.”

I couldn’t resist looking at Seel. He was studying his glass closely, a private sort of smile playing at his lips.

“Whoa,” Cal said suddenly. “Wait a minute – back up. Are you saying Azriel and Aleeme got tattoos of one another’s names?”

Seel looked up. He wasn’t smiling anymore.

“I tried to talk them out of it,” Cobweb said, with a sigh.

“But that’s so bizarre,” Cal said. “Because Flick you ha – ow.” Pell had very discreetly elbowed him in the ribs. Cal recovered quickly. “I mean you hate tattoos, Flick. Tattoos. Bad. What did you think when you saw it?” He apparently couldn’t resist smiling in a self-satisfied way.

Everyhar turned to look at me and suddenly I couldn’t think of what to say. Of course when I saw Aleeme’s tattoo, my mind had immediately gone to my own dumb mistake with Seel, but I couldn’t just blurt that out in front of a room full of hara. I had never been much of a liar.

Seel saved me. “Well, Calanthe,” he said – he always called Cal by his full name these days, “maybe Flick disapproved, but he doesn’t enjoy creating trouble for other hara. Unlike some.” If looks could kill, Cal would have been dead.

Cal raised his hands. “I’m not saying a word.”

I thought that somehar would pick up on the strangeness of the conversation, but I suppose that everyhar was so used to Seel’s obscure jabs at Cal that no har noticed anything unusual. I had never exactly told Ulaume about the tattoo. Very early in our relationship he had noticed the scar and asked me about it. We weren’t chesna back then, but the pain and embarrassment of the whole tattoo incident were still fresh for me and I mumbled something under my breath about burning myself while cooking. I’ve thought about telling Ulaume the truth since then, but now it would probably cause controversy because I hid it from him. Judging from Seel’s words to Cal, I was guessing that he hadn’t told Swift either.

Pell quickly changed the subject and the mood in the room lightened, but I kept thinking about the past. I looked over at Seel and he gave me a sly smile. I thought that he would talk to me later. I was right.

After most of the guests had left and the few hara still at the party were milling around the room, I saw Seel walk into the hallway. Instinctively, I followed him. He sat down on a small sofa in a secluded corner and seeing me, patted the seat beside him in a friendly way. I sat down. He didn’t say anything.

“So,” I began, grasping for conversation, “how was it for you, seeing your only son taking the blood bond?”

“It was nice,” Seel said, cautiously. “I think Aleeme is good for him.”

Aleeme and Azriel were definitely good for one another. “Yeah. I would have thought you wouldn’t think much of the concept of blood bonding though.”

Seel raised his eyebrows. “I’m bonded to Swift you know.”

“I know. I just – it seems like something you’d hate. The idea of a big, permanent statement like – like –”

“Like name tattoos?” Seel supplied with a wry smile.

I shrugged sheepishly. “Yeah. Like that.”

Seel sighed. “I’m not the har I was, Flick.”

I looked at Seel, how lovely he was in the lamplight. He was still incredible to look at, but there was an underlying sadness in his eyes and he even had faint frown lines – something few hara possessed. I knew that Swift made him happy. Maybe the melancholy look was because of Cal. Or maybe he had always had this sadness and bitterness inside of him and I’d just been too young and bright eyed to notice the full extent of it when we lived together at Saltrock. He’d been incepted into the Uigenna at a very young age and after being taken captive by the Uigenna myself, I fully understood how horrible it might have been for him. I couldn’t imagine that the Uigenna had taken in a skinny, fourteen-year-old Seel for his fighting ability, after all. “I know,” I told him. “I didn’t mean to imply that you were.”

“Cal deserves a good talking to,” Seel said. “He knew what he was doing – bringing up that old tattoo in a room full of hara.”

“Maybe he thought that everyhar knew,” I said, not sure why I was defending Cal. “I was glad you shut him up though. I’ve – uh – never told Ulaume about the tattoo.”

Seel smiled and looked away from me. “I’ve never told Swift either. He was young when we got together and sometimes it feels strange that I lived so much of my life before I met him and it’s not the same for him. At any rate, it would have been embarrassing to have that whole tattoo incident mentioned at a party, even if he had known.”

“Not embarrassing for you,” I couldn’t help but say. “You’re not the har who went and got the name of somehar who wasn’t in love with you tattooed on your chest.”

Seel shook his head and gave me a sideways look. “It wasn’t that bad, Flick.”

“Um – that’s not what you said at the time, if I remember correctly.”

“Like I said, I’m not the har I was.” He smiled again and I realized that he now regarded the “tattoo incident” as I’d taken to calling it in my head with a certain amount of humor and fondness. Maybe I regarded it that way myself.

“So,” Seel said. “Is there still a scar?”

“Yeah,” I looked around to be sure that no har was in the room with us. Then I unbuttoned the top three buttons of my shirt and held it open so he could see. He looked at it for about thirty seconds before touching it very deliberately with his index finger.

“A faint scar,” he said, almost flirtatious.

“Very faint.”

“Think you’ll ever tell Ulaume?” Seel asked.

I shook my head as I buttoned my shirt back up. “I probably should. He might take it okay. Then again, he might demand that I tattoo his name on my back in letters six inches tall.”

Seel laughed. “What? You wouldn’t do it?”

“Are you kidding? That thing hurt. Ulaume’s name is six or seven letters long – and it’s got a ‘M’ in it.”

This made Seel laugh again and I didn’t tell him that the real reason I would never get a tattoo of Ulaume’s name was because it would just remind me of my relationship with Seel and how poisoned it was.

“I should get back to the party,” Seel said. “Or what’s left of it. Who knows what havoc Calanthe is wreaking in my absence.”

I faked a yawn. “I’ll probably see if I can get Ulaume to go to bed. I got up early this morning.” Of course, Ulaume and I were staying at Forever for Aleeme’s bonding ceremony. We’d go back home tomorrow.

Seel nodded and then he did something I didn’t expect. He leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek, very close to the corner of my mouth. “It was good talking to you, Flick,” he said.

I looked into his eyes and I didn’t see quite so much sadness there. “Yeah. You too.”

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6 Comments

  1. Gingerspark said,

    December 10, 2010 at 12:24 pm

    awww… nice to know the can be “friends” after all they went through.

    • youcantseeus said,

      December 11, 2010 at 10:00 pm

      Thanks. I like to think that these two could be friends again someday in spite of bad history.

  2. darklady88 said,

    December 22, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    I love this story because Flick is one of my most favorite characters…its weird how he can be so loving and sweet in the books and in this story after being mistreated so badly by seel….Thanks for the read….

    • youcantseeus said,

      December 26, 2010 at 12:28 am

      Thanks, I do think that Flick is a sweetheart. He never loses that side of himself. Thanks for reading.

  3. Emily S said,

    January 16, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    This is absolutely amazing 🙂 I only recently got into the Wraeththu fandom, and have read the first three books. I’ve yet to finish reading Wraiths (and the other two), but not too much went over my head.

    I completely love how you inserted this story into the actual canon. I do hope that they can reach that point of friendship one day.

    A very beautiful piece with a bit of bittersweetness 🙂

    • youcantseeus said,

      February 11, 2012 at 12:22 pm

      Thank you so much, I’m glad you like it. I love doing gapfillers and filling in parts that were left out in canon — and I’ve always been a little curious about Flick/Seel.

      I hope you enjoy the rest of the Wraeththu series!


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