Bastion, when Saila turns around, has stepped closer and is practically standing on top of her. She gives a little jump. He just frowns.
“What’s this about?” He asks.
“We can’t take him with us through the Western sky market,” Saila whispers in what she hopes is a patient tone, craning her neck up and furrowing her brows down because of it. “We won’t get five steps without somebody trying to steal him or buy him. Besides, you wanted to go to the Ivory Spires, didn’t you? Do you really think it’s safe for him?”
A dreadful idea in of itself. She’s not sure what’s gotten into her that she’s even entertaining the idea. Worse yet— her eyes fall on Bastion’s row of golden piercings again— Bastion is clearly no stranger to dangerous situations. Hopefully he’ll remember that not everybody is so eager to flirt with death.
The wail of metal cracking in the Cat King’s mouth, Bastion’s face drawn and terrified and hopeless, and his hands in hers, trembling faintly, as he tells her to run: all of it swims to the forefront of her mind.
It’s foolish of her to think otherwise: Bastion won’t cast her into harm’s way.
Besides…. She is curious. In all her years in the city, she’s never been there, only heard dark stories, some of them whispered along the whiskers of the postmasters. To be curious is to expose oneself to danger, she knows, but right at this moment, there isn’t anything else better she can do. In fact, it rather seems like every direction feels a bit dangerous at this very moment. So: forward to danger, onward to curiosity.
“It’s a good point,” Bastion says, stepping back from her just as Thomm rounds the corner clutching a red cotton backpack with sunny yellow chicks embroidered on the straps. Bastion and Saila exchange a mutually flummoxed look.
“Found this,” Thomm says, throwing it open with an authoritative snap of the wrist. “It’ll look shabby above your skirts, Miss, but better than nothing.”
“Um,” Saila starts, leery of how adorable it is, but there’s an amateurishness to the embroidery, a particularly untouched element to the fabric, that prickles her instincts before she can stick her foot in her mouth. “It’s charming,” she says finally, which is the truth. Bastion, behind her, shifts.
“Come back with it when you’re done your errands and don’t mind the hour,” he says as if reminding her of his previous words, bustling to and fro cutting this zucchini and that, and before they know it the pack is full and Saila has it on and out the greenhouse door they go, ushered forward by Thomm himself.
The timing is good: a few sailors are coming up the docks, documents appearing in their hands as they pull them from inventory. Thomm puffs up his chest, looking eager. He does enjoy this part of his job, Saila knows. He’s got the lungs for it certainly.
“LINE UP AND PAPERS OUT, ya’ lot! Forms in hand or else I’ll send ya’ out again to get them organized! STAND IN A GOOD NARROW LINE NOW, no room for much else!”
Saila and Bastion say their goodbyes to ChoCho as Thomm shuffles further into the hut and starts yelling at the new arrivals again, this time about their handwriting. For Saila, it’s a welcome return to procedure: despite his own handwriting being deeply illegible, Thomm is a stickler for penmanship in others.
Against the steady background of Thomm’s eternally-running harangue, Saila gathers ChoCho up in her hands and rubs a finger against his head, lets him nibble at it. He isn’t so bad, she supposes. Nothing wrong with having a bit of a bite, especially when he’s so small and the world is so large.
She offers the bird to Bastion, but Bastion simply crouches down to explain their plan to him as he stands in her palms. The points of his claws rest gently against her skin. Saila gets the distinct impression that the bird already knows what they’re up to and is humoring Bastion by listening, but she keeps that opinion to herself.
Bastion’s voice is low and steady as he reassures ChoCho that they’ll return without a doubt, and if Saila takes a little of that reassurance and borrows it for herself, that’s between her and the Kings.
Saila heads over to wriggle into the hut when he’s done. She has to work to squeeze between the new arrivals, enormously muscled women with feathers bursting from the backs of their necks. They’ve all queued up as best they can in the tiny space, but it’s tight indeed. She keeps her hands cupped around the bird in case she’s jostled, but the women are leery of her and lift their elbows, tuck themselves back from her. She deposits ChoCho on Thomm’s desk, and while he doesn’t stop yelling at the captain of the crew about her mysterious coffee stains on one corner of the import forms, he does wink at her.
Saila wriggles out of the building again, wondering if she should have just brought the bird with them after all. Perhaps Thomm will be a bit too much for ChoCho to handle.
Thomm starts yelling again, and ChoCho joins in with obviously full-throated pleasure.
Saila suspects that he’s in the right hands after all.
As they start the climb back up the steps, Saila shifts the pack on her shoulders.
“It’s a children’s bag, isn’t it?” Bastion asks. She gets the impression that he’s finally putting a voice to a question he’s been chewing on for a bit.
“Are you saying something about my size?” She asks, irritated. She has the distinct feeling that knowing Bastion means her neck is about to get very sore. Bastion rolls his eyes at her. Cheeky! “Yes, I think it probably is.”
“Does he have children?” Bastion asks, watching her now with palpable exasperation.
“No, I think he’s a widower.” They climb some more steps. “Oh.”
“I like him,” Bastion says with grim certainty.
“He doesn’t like you,” Saila points out. His stance is puzzling to say the least.
“That’s why I like him,” he says, shoving his hands into his pockets. He gets a curious, fond look around the edges of his eyes, like he’s looking at something that he wishes were in front him. “He reminds me of somebody.”
“Somebody that didn’t like you?”
“Maybe,” Bastion says slowly. “When you put it that way, it sounds pretty unfortunate, doesn’t it.”
“You’re perfectly likable,” she says, surprising nobody more than herself.
Bastion looks down at her, his hands still jammed in his pockets, his legs still slashed with red.
“Thanks,” he says, one eyebrow tilting up a bit. “But you don’t know me very well.”
“Perfectly likable except for your dislike of zucchini,” Saila says, jostling the pack meaningfully, “and your height, both of which are fairly major character faults.”
“Is that so,” Bastion snorts, mirth tilting the edge of his mouth up.
“And your messy eating habits,” Saila continues, which makes him bare his teeth showily at her in a mock-irritated fashion. “And your sense of fashion.”
“My what?” He says, stopping still. Saila continues up the steps until she’s a little above his standing height.
“You’re a fancy sort,” she says, hopping around to face him. “A positive dandy.”
“Am I?” He asks, looking himself up and down. “It’s just my uniform. I don’t think that counts if it’s the clothes I’ve been assigned to wear.”
“It’s not the uniform,” Saila corrects, looking at his flashy golden earrings and his tidy braids looped up in a velvet ribbon the same color, now that she looks closely, as his eyes. His vain, handsome little goatee, too, and all the fussy time that implies. “It’s what you’ve done with yourself around the uniform.”
“Around it?” Bastion repeats quietly, and tucks his head down and starts walking up the steps again. “I don’t think there’s much room around the edges of this uniform.”
“You have to force room around some things,” Saila tells him, hopping onto the main landing of the street laid out in front of them empty of people but ripe with promise for an interesting day, however terrifying it might be. “Put your elbows into it if it won’t move. There has to be room for you, don’t you think? What’s the point of life otherwise?”
“Hm,” Bastion says, scratching at his goatee, looking thoughtful. “Common good.”
“You’re part of the common good,” Saila insists, firm on this for reasons she can’t really put a name to. “And anyway, common good is fine for the big picture, but what about the small view of things, when you’re all by yourself? You only have yourself for company. You’d better like what you have to spend time with.”
“Sounds like you’re speaking from experience,” Bastion says, his voice hitting a strange note, one she doesn’t think she’s heard before from him. Saila whips her head around to stare at him. He stares back, the blue of his eyes bright as twin stars in the sky.
“Are you mocking me?” Because of course she’s speaking from experience. Of course she’s spent years and years and years alone. Of course she knows what it’s like to have to bite and shove and scrabble to find a small place, just a narrow spot to occupy in this enormous wide world with its endless skies and ceaseless rush of time and no place, no place at all, for just her as she is.
“Just commenting,” he says, but he takes his hands out of his pockets. He doesn’t take his eyes away from hers.
“There may come a time,” Saila tells Bastion, her brows drawing down heavy and her voice going hard, “when you can only rely on yourself. I can’t believe that as a member of the Leaping Guard you haven’t come across situations like that, ones where nobody else can help you up.” Her eyes slide to the rings, the studs, the rings again in his ears.
“You pulled me up last time,” Bastion reminds her, his tone gently brutal, “with your own two hands, at considerable personal risk. You seem to be bad at taking your own advice.”
“I- that was-” she says, and feels rather as if she’s had the rug expertly yanked out from under her. She ducks her head and her hair falls down in a curtain between her and the world.
“Just saying,” Bastion says innocently.
Saila rather suddenly wonders if this tone, this wide-eyed brilliant nonchalance, is an act as much as her forcefully feminine winsomeness is. He’d have plenty of occasion to practice it, wouldn’t he, working in the Guard. Plenty of people to question, plenty of people to learn on. Plenty of time to work at it until he was very good indeed at asking leading questions but never going there himself.
Plenty of time to be the somebody else that was needed for a situation, certainly. Plenty of time to learn to be the captain of the guard.
“So much resentment about being forced to acknowledge some fashion choices,” she replies, curious to test out her theory, and hooks her hair back out of her face again. “If it bothers you that much to try to be yourself alongside what other people need of you, be my guest. I only meant to offer you some advice.”
“Er,” Bastion says, his cooly amused expression unseated in one hard push.
She’s still got it.
“Just saying,” she says, smiling prettily over his shoulder at him. The flummoxed, indignant expression that earns her keeps her warm all the way to the Western sky markets.