Athena bowed with a flourish as Sasha clapped. “Your singing voice is reel-y something, Athena. I want to grab my cutlass and set sail more than ever.” She donned her moustache and struck a pose. Athena beamed.
“You really mean that?”
“Yeah,” Sasha said, unsheathing her rubber sword and poking it in the direction of the ship. “Apollo might have chords of steel, but you have chords of adventure.”
Athena blushed—because seriously, who could hear Sasha of the Swashbuck Spectacular compliment them and not swoon? “So, you’d consider putting me in the show?”
“Sure, why not? I’m out of a partner anyway.” Hand-on-hip, Sasha shrugged, her light smile bringing to mind Apollo’s past strained behavior. The discord in her heart made Athena want to cover her ears.
Meeting Athena’s eye, Sasha rubbed her neck. “Aw, sorry to get depressing. Your performance was great, so calling it a back-up plan’s just rude.” As the brightness in her voice made Athena ashamed of wanting to block the discord out, Athena jumped onto a barrel and raised her own cutlass.
“Ar, I’ll forgive ye, but only if ye walk the plank.”
The ensuing duel went off-script from their unofficial audition, but when they were done, the discord in Sasha’s heart had faded, so Athena hardly cared.
“And let’s take it from the top—a one, a two!”
Sasha whistled, and Athena raised her whistle in unison. Orla surfaced immediately, leaping before falling and causing a splash. Ora didn’t.
Athena pouted. “I blew it just like you said…!“
“Just keep trying—it’s k-not easy learning a pattern you can’t hear. When Azura taught me, I floundered for weeks.”
Athena wanted to complain that she should have been able to hear it, but getting competitive with the orca was a bit much even for her. “Okay, that’s it, Ora. You can’t evade me forever!” She lifted the whistle and tried again.
When their rehearsal was done, Athena cast off her eye patch and plopped down, stretching her legs with a groan. “Who knew being a pirate was such a good workout?”
Sasha twirled her sword and sheathed it, offering a hand. “Don’t tell me being a pirate is too much work for a landlubber?”
Athena took the offered hand and grinned. “Never. I love workouts. Race you to the noodle stand?”
Athena won, of course, though it was a closer race than she’d had in a while, due in part to Sasha tripping her. Athena was still complaining about fair play—“But all’s ferry in love and pirating!”—when they settled on the grass by the river with their steaming bowls.
“Are you ever far from water?” Athena asked as she slurped, paying no mind to the temperature despite her panting.
Sasha tucked her ankles under her knees. “Not if I can help it.” The salt finally getting to her, Athena took a break from downing her bowl and studied Sasha. She was only poking at her bowl despite burning as many calories as Athena, and her skin looked pasty around her red cheeks. She caught Athena’s eye and grinned. “Salty like the sea, right?”
Athena crossed her own legs, her knee brushing against Sasha’s thigh. “R-right,” Athena said. Sasha didn’t look worried, so Athena decided not to be, either.
“Do you think the Swashbuck Spectacular needs a magician?”
Athena glanced up from the file she’d just finished organizing and saw Trucy rocking on her heels. “You bet!” Athena said with a grin. “Magic pirates…I think we’re on to something. I’ll pitch it to Sasha.”
“Unfortunately, Truce needs to study, not swashbuckle.” Trucy pouted and swatted her father, bickering with him as they left to grab takeout. Athena sunk back into the sofa, listening to Apollo neatening the papers she’d just filed.
“This’ll be the first time in a while you have dinner with us, huh?” he commented.
“Yeah, sorry. I’ve been at the aquarium.”
He popped open a soda and settled next to her. “I don’t blame you. Mr. Wright doesn’t exactly pay our bills.”
“Oh, it’s not about money,” Athena said, stretching delightfully sore muscles. “It’s about adventure! Treasure! The open sea!”
“Just checking, but you do realize it’s a show, right?”
“Of course I do! That doesn’t mean it’s not exciting. Live a little, Apollo.”
“I’m fine as a landlubber, thanks. But you know, my bracelet reacted a moment ago.”
Athena froze. “It…it did?” She listened for suspicion, but all she sensed was curiosity.
The truth was, she’d approached Sasha about auditioning—and watched that taped show countless times, and been beside herself when they’d gotten Sasha arrested—for a reason. To a master of psychology, it wasn’t hard to figure out. Acting on it, however, was beyond her. For someone who’d spent so long not being with anyone in even the basic sense, it was enough to simply admire someone, and besides, Sasha’s losses still left static in her heart.
“Jewelry’s probably malfunctioning,” Athena said, waving her hand. “It’s not as thorough as widget.” Thankfully knowing not to pry, Apollo only rolled his eyes while Athena stole a sip of his soda.
Athena’s misgivings disappeared when she saw Sasha, because who could stay mopey over ‘what ifs’ around someone so alive? Sasha seemed brighter than ever as they rehearsed, and when they were done with their usual singing and orca training, she announced a new element.
“I got the idea from this prosecutor—he was some kind of tango master, and I was like, if someone performing in court can dance, why not pirates?”
Athena lit up, telling the nerves wriggling into a ball inside her to hush. “So, then…?”
“He choreographed us a routine. I have the diagram right here. Shouldn’t be hard to figure out, right?”
“Nah, we’ll ace it. Let’s have a look-sea,” Athena said.
They scooted together and pored over the diagram before starting. Athena only had a moment to feel electrified by the intimacy; none of their athleticism helped when it came to a new dance, so staying upright without maiming each other became top priority. By the end, they’d only gained a little grace, but Athena’s ball of nerves had turned into a ball of laughter and so she, at least, didn’t care.
They’d just gotten the hang of tangoing when tragedy struck.
Finally able to do the steps without falling into the pool, Athena switched into autopilot, her mind focusing on sensory input, the brush of their shoulders and the sound—not the emotion, the rhythm, alive and pumping—of Sasha’s heart. They were at the slow part, the part more waltz than tango but for the rhythm, when the dance of Sasha’s heart slowed. Athena thought nothing of it at first, assuming her own faster beats were a result of her feelings as the sound of Sasha’s heartbeats lulled her. It wasn’t until the music stopped that the implication became clear.
Mouth wide but voiceless except for a strangled noise, Athena let go and backed away, slipping into the pool. She surfaced, trying to blubber a warning and coughing up water instead. Her own heart hammered. Like suction cups in her ears, the water worsened her vertigo.
She swam to the edge, where she grabbed Sasha’s offered hand. Its solidness bringing her back to her senses, she hiccupped out a warning, which Sasha took with grave calmness that made Athena ashamed of her flailing. Quietly Sasha said she’d call a doctor. After snapping out of it, Athena hurried to her side, where she refused to leave until Sasha was admitted into the emergency room.
Athena spent the wait pacing, digging her nails into her palms as she tried not to cry. If Sasha died, it would be her fault for not paying better attention just because…why? Because her slowed heart sounded relaxing? Athena’s stomach churned at the thought.
She rested her shoulder against the wall. Someone couldn’t die after pulling herself out of so much adversity, not from an oversight caused by admiration. That couldn’t be right, wouldn’t be fair. Neither was Mother’s death, or Simon’s trial, Athena thought, and I was helpless then, too.
Her ponytail slapped her cheek as she shook her head. She’d pulled past those memories already. Besides, just because bad things happened to good people didn’t mean she had to give in to doubt.
Sasha’s impromptu surgery—which the aquarium hastily provided insurance for, courtesy partly of Ms. DePlume’s advocacy—went into the night. After phoning the Wrights, Athena jogged her tension off before returning to the waiting room and draping herself across a bench. An elderly man with a toddler curled in his lap snored. Their heartbeats lulled Athena to asleep.
She woke to find Trucy curled up beside her, a bag of food and a note clutched in her hand. Smiling through her yawn, Athena shoveled the food down and tucked Trucy’s cape around her before drifting back off.
Trucy prodded her awake. Preparing an excuse for sleeping on the job, Athena spotted a nurse and remembered where she was. Her heart hammered. “How is…?”
The nurse smiled. “The surgery was successful. I even gave her my best injection.”
Jumping up, Athena spun before grabbing the nurse’s hand and kissing it. “Oh, thank you,” Athena said. Seeming a bit dazed, the nurse drew her hand away.
“Um, my grandmother the director is the one responsible, so…”
“Well, kiss her for me, too,” Athena said. The nurse promised to do so, nodded several times, and scurried off. Athena called after her. “Wait, I want to see—!”
“She’s resting. You’ll have plenty of time to talk once she’s healed, so please come back later. Um, I’ll see you then.” The nurse hovered in the doorway, bowed, and disappeared, leaving Athena slumping in her wake.
Trucy tugged on Athena’s sleeve, making her start. “Isn’t that great? Come on, we should tell Polly and Daddy and celebrate.”
“Yeah, but…” She didn’t voice the rest of her thought. The emergency strengthened her yearning, but if Sasha was resting, there was nothing she could do. “Yeah, it is great. Shall we tell Apollo and your daddy and celebrate?”
“I just said that. By the way, that was quite a spell you put on that nurse,” Trucy said, winking. Athena had no idea what she was talking about and said so, earning a bout of giggles.
As soon as Sasha was available, Athena ran to the hospital. The sight of a pasty-faced Sasha sans make-up lying wrapped in blankets and a robe was jarring, but her smile was as bright as ever, so Athena mirrored it before making a theatrical display of swooning over Sasha’s bed. It was for Sasha’s benefit; her real tears of relief had been shed in private.
“How are you feeling?” she asked when she was done.
“Like a million buckos,” Sasha said, a croak in her voice. “Okay, not really, but I’m alive, so I’ll get there.”
“That’s the spirit! Oh, Trucy wanted me to deliver this. She said it was a care package, but I’d expect rubber chickens more than cookies if I were you.”
Sasha laughed. “Th-anchor for me.”
Athena set the package down and freshened up some flowers from the aquarium before sobering as she perched on the edge of the bed. “I’m so sorry. It’s my fault you pushed yourself too far. I should have realized…”
“What the mother-of-pearl are you talking about? You saved my life. I don’t think I’d have made it if not for you.” Sasha’s eyes shone. “You’re a hero, Athena. A real queen of the sea.”
Without straining to listen, Athena heard an overwhelming admiration that made her beam. The feeling sounded so familiar that at first she didn’t realize parts of her weren’t simply her own emotions, but an echo. When the meaning hit her, her jaw dropped.
“Oh. I. Oh.”
Sasha’s crooked smile might have been her version of sheepish. “You can hear emotions, right? I guess I don’t have to tell you.”
“Y-yeah,” Athena said, her mouth sandpaper, her heart soaring, her mind struggling to catch up. She swallowed through the scratchiness. “So, um—”
“Let’s kiss already,” Widget said. Face hot, Athena bonked it while Sasha laughed.
“Uh, let’s wait until you’re not in danger of cardiac arrest?” Athena suggested, half joking, half testing. A sparkle in Sasha’s eye transformed the crookedness into a smirk.
“Wow, you’re that good?”
“Oh, I, uh, wouldn—totally. Duh. I’m très magnifique.”
“Loser,” Widget pronounced.
Sasha laughed again. “Something for me to look forward to, then,” she said. Athena could only nod several times before clasping Sasha’s hand.
Their next show would have been delayed if it weren’t for Athena taking the lead and Marlon and Trucy helping. They dug up an older script; the tango would wait for Sasha.
In the meantime, Sasha sat on the sidelines providing the whistle commands, of which Athena had only mastered one. They’d practice and she’d learn, Sasha promised. Athena didn’t doubt.
Athena listened to Sasha’s heartbeat vigilantly. Sometimes Sasha would notice her concentrating and wave a hand in front of her face, telling her she was fine, but Athena had more than one reason to listen—to remind herself it was beating and she shouldn’t take that fact for granted, to bask in the beams of admiration, to remember why she should grasp sunshine rather than wait for it to warm her—and sometimes she was close enough she didn’t have to use her ability at all.
Slowly—quickly, like a water slide—Sasha healed. Sometimes, when she listened, Athena could hear the discord was still there, but she never tried to block it out again.