It was early when they left the hotel; so early that the sun was little more than a rounded strip of red light on the horizon and the sky itself was milky pearl-grey, without a cloud in sight. Even so it was already hot enough to slick Alejandro’s skin with sweat and dampen his hair into curls across the nape of his neck. Beside him Ciaran fanned himself with the collar of his T-shirt, licking sweat off his upper lip and flashing Alejandro a grin when he noticed he was being watched. Alejandro smiled back and took Ciaran’s hand, leading him around a group of chattering children dressed in bright, multicoloured clothes.
Boats were already setting out for the day when they reached the marina; little wooden fishing boats and sleek yachts and a cruise ship refuelling before it headed to its next destination. A little girl waved to them from its deck and Ciaran waved back, the light of the rising sun glinting off the silver bracelet around his wrist. Alejandro only nodded, one hand still holding Ciaran’s and the other carrying a bag containing towels, sunscreen, and their lunch. As they walked down to the rental office, even total strangers greeted them—and each other—warmly, passing on the weather forecast—bright and sunny all day—and the best places for fishing.
Inside the office the A/C was already going full-blast, a rattle of cold air that was a welcome relief from the rising heat outside. Alejandro handed Ciaran their bag and left him browsing the shelves of touristy knickknacks, approaching the woman behind the desk with a smile and sweaty palms that weren’t damp entirely due to the heat. She beamed a gap-toothed grin back at him and boomed, “How are ya, darlin’?”
“Fine, thanks,” he said, trying not to be taken aback by her sheer volume. “Uh, I’m Alejandro Quezada. I have a rental here? A sailboat.” He glanced over his shoulder at Ciaran, to make sure he hadn’t wandered off anywhere.
“Just sign here.” The woman pushed some papers at him and he skimmed them quickly—standard liability papers so he wouldn’t sue if something went wrong—before quickly scribbling his signature at the bottom. “Your friend too,” the woman added, before shouting across the room at Ciaran, “Hey, darlin’! Come sign!” She waited a moment, frowning slightly when Ciaran continued to look through the shelves, not even acknowledging her with a glance.
“He’s, uh, he’s deaf,” Alejandro told her, crossing the room to catch Ciaran’s arm and quickly sign an explanation. Ciaran smiled and nodded, following Alejandro back to the desk.
“You sign here, darlin’,” the woman said slowly and at a volume that Alejandro felt might break the windows, tapping her pen against the paper. “You un-der-stand?”
Ciaran quirked an eyebrow, leaning over to put his neat signature next to Alejandro’s scrawl. Hustling him out of the office as soon as they’d been given the boat’s name and dock number, Alejandro fought to keep the scowl off his face. Even four years after he’d met Ciaran—at the bakery where he’d been sent to buy a cake and where Ciaran still worked as the main decorator—it still amazed and angered him how many people seemed to think speaking to Ciaran like he was an idiot child would magically make him able to hear. Ciaran himself never seemed that bothered by it, but nothing much ever seemed to bother Ciaran. Alejandro could barely even think of a time when Ciaran had actually lost his temper, unless it was on behalf of someone else.
He took out his anger on the ropes mooring the sailboat to the wooden dock, tossing them off in quick angry movements. The boat moved slowly out towards the open water, Ciaran at the helm, and Alejandro didn’t start to relax until the marina had shrunk almost completely into the distance behind them. He turned his face into a slight, salty breeze and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly and feeling the tension drain from his muscles. When Ciaran touched his arm he jumped, his sheepish look met by an amused smirk.
Still angry? Ciaran signed, his long fingers flowing through the motions with elegant ease.
“No.” Alejandro said it aloud even as he signed the same words, albeit with less grace than Ciaran did. “Just pisses me off. You’re not stupid.”
Ciaran grinned. I know that.
“Well, other people should too.”
Rolling his eyes, Ciaran looped both arms around Alejandro’s waist and kissed the hollow of his throat, breath warm against Alejandro’s skin. Alejandro rested his cheek against the silk of Ciaran’s hair, breathing in the mixed scents of shampoo, sweat, and sea. For a long moment he just stood there with Ciaran in his arms, until the boat bumped over a wave and stumbled them apart. Alejandro reluctantly let Ciaran go back to the wheel and spread a towel out on the deck to sunbathe in the powerful rays of the sun.
He slept for a few hours and woke to the sun high overhead and his stomach announcing its immediate need for food. Sun-drunk and groggy, he pushed himself up and made his way to where Ciaran was guiding the sailboat towards one of the many small beaches that littered this area of the Caribbean. Alejandro slid an arm around Ciaran’s waist, content to let Ciaran steer the boat in towards a dock someone had built out from the tiny island. When they were alongside it, he jumped out and tied the boat off, then gave Ciaran—and the coldbox of food—a hand onto the dock.
They ate picnic-style on a blanket spread on the beach’s pale sand, watching the waves roll in long slow lines against the sand. Somewhere in the vegetation behind them a bird called, answered by another a few feet off to the side. Stuffed full of cold chicken and apple pie, Alejandro leaned back on his elbows and stretched out his legs, hazel eyes half-narrowed behind his glasses against the glitter of the sun on the water. Ciaran packed up the remains of their lunch and sprawled out beside him, pillowing his head in his arms. They were only a week into a two-week vacation but Alejandro could see how much Ciaran’s hair had already lightened under the strength of the sun, from honey-blond to gold.
He stroked a hand down Ciaran’s back and settled in to take another nap while lunch digested. After sleeping for an hour, they went swimming, wading into the cool water hand-in-hand while Alejandro tried not to think about sharks and Man O’ War jellyfish. For a little while he just floated, letting the gentle waves rock his body in soothing motion, one ear always listening to the sound of Ciaran splashing around nearby. He was just on the verge of zoning out with the sun on his face when Ciaran suddenly splashed him and dragged him under, tickling his ribs before releasing him. Not about to let it go, Alejandro attacked, sparking off a splashing fight that sent sparkles of water high into the air.
Ciaran gave in first, holding up both hands in surrender and tossing his head to get wet hair out of his eyes. Alejandro caught him by the hips and kissed him, tasting the tang of salt on his lips and tongue; hands already sliding his shorts down. Looping both arms around his neck, Ciaran pressed into him, smiling against his mouth and closing his teeth gently on Alejandro’s bottom lip. He let his body do the talking and Alejandro was more than willing to listen, unsure sometimes whether he was more in love with Ciaran or with the way Ciaran moved, uninhibited and confident no matter what he did. Words were hardly needed when everything about Ciaran was written so plainly in the line of jaw and neck, in the arch of his back, in the deft touch of his hands and the curve of his grin.
The sun was beginning to slide down towards the horizon by the time they left the beach, careful to clean up after themselves and leave nothing more than footprints in the damp sand by the water to mar its perfection. Alejandro leaned on the boat’s railing and watched it fade away behind them, feeling sleepy and content. For the first time all day, he wondered if Brandon—his best friend, former roommate, and the one who had argued them into this trip because three together paid less than one alone—had even bothered to get out of bed yet. When they’d left that morning Brandon had been little more than a tuft of green hair sticking out from the blankets and a vague grunt when Alejandro asked if he was still alive after a busy night of drinking and partying with one of his many temporary island girlfriends. If he was awake now, he was probably getting ready to go out again.
A sudden boom of thunder startled Alejandro out of musing on his friend’s partying habits and he looked up into the cool breeze, staring wide-eyed at the massive bulk of black stormcloud that had swallowed up the formerly flawless sky. Purple lightning flashed inside its depths and thunder muttered again, low and ominous. The wind gusted hard enough to lift Alejandro’s hair off his forehead and filled their sails, skipping the boat ahead across growing waves.
Swallowing hard, Alejandro went to join Ciaran, taking some comfort from the concerned but still mostly unruffled way that Ciaran watched the storm approach. It came up quickly, wiping out the sunset in seconds, and rain fell in a sudden sheet, hard and stinging on exposed skin. Alejandro saw Ciaran’s hands tighten on the wheel, hard enough that his knuckles went white, as the little boat plunged gamely on through waves now almost as tall as the top of the railing.
He went for the lifejackets in the box at the other end of the boat, pausing just a moment to shrug one on before hurrying back to Ciaran. The rain pounded down on him, streaking his glasses until he could hardly see and making the deck dangerously slick. He skidded a little as the boat thumped down into a trough, caught his balance, and was just about to push the other lifejacket into Ciaran’s hands when the boat twisted and another wave slammed into it broadside.
Even over the wind and the rain and the thunder Alejandro heard something crunch. The boat keeled over towards one side and took Ciaran with it, fetching him up against the railing so hard his head snapped back. He clutched at the railing with one hand, struggling to get his feet back under him as the boat pitched blindly through the storm. As Alejandro tried to get to him, the lifejacket still clenched in one fist, the boat twisted again, knocking him sprawling on the wet, listing deck.
The sea rose around them in a towering wave, its leading edge curling over almost in slow-motion. It hung in the air above them, flecked with white foam, for long seconds, long enough for Alejandro to lock eyes with Ciaran and see the terror he knew was mirrored on his own face. Then the wave crashed down, splintering their boat into kindling and throwing them both into the dark, churning water.
Alejandro inhaled the sea in the first shock of hitting the cold water, helpless against the waves that tumbled him end over end. He made it to the surface more by luck and lifejacket than by design, taking a deep breath of the wet air and immediately looking for Ciaran. The stormy waves dragged him back and forth until he was exhausted and sobbing in fear and frustration. The rain cleared briefly, only for a few seconds, and movement at the corner of his eye resolved into Ciaran, swimming with obviously tired but still strong strokes. Alejandro splashed towards him and got almost within touching distance before another wave picked him up and flung him to the side. He choked on salty water and saw Ciaran go under, dragged down almost as though something had grabbed him.
Red light flashed both under and over the water, so brilliant that it left Alejandro blind except for the dark imprint of Ciaran inside the light, sinking and reaching one hand up for help. When his eyes finally cleared, Alejandro found himself floating alone in the rapidly calming ocean, while overhead the thunderclouds tattered and fell apart under the red-gold rays of the dying sun.
“Ciaran!” He screamed it, knowing it would do no good even as he did. Only his own voice echoed back to him over the wind. He swallowed hard against a sob and kicked to keep himself afloat, leaning heavily into the lifejacket and searching the deep water around him for any sign of Ciaran.
He heard the ship before he saw it and started yelling before it even came into sight, his voice cracking and soaring through the register. A shadow in the distance became an old motorboat with three people inside, one of whom yelled at him to keep calm while they came to get him. Strong hands pulled him up over the side once the boat had drifted near enough and he sprawled at the bottom, arms wrapped around himself to try and stop the shivers running through him. One of the strangers made him sit up and wrapped a blanket around him, rubbing briskly at his arms until his teeth stopped chattering, and another gave him a mug of steaming coffee.
“Ciaran,” he managed, wrapping his hands around the mug. “There was this red light and he disappeared. Please, find him.”
“We’ll look,” one of the men said, and Alejandro was so grateful he almost missed the doubtful look on the man’s sun-browned face. They brought the boat in ever-widening circles after radioing into shore, but no matter how closely they searched, the ocean remained completely empty.
“Nothing,” the man who had handed Alejandro the coffee said gently, when the sun had set and the only light came from the stars. “The Coast Guard will come out, of course, but...”
Alejandro didn’t reply, only put his head in his arms and hunched in on himself in misery as the boat chugged slowly back to shore.