An infant is born without any teeth. The central incisors come first, then the laterals, the canines, and then they fall again. By the age of fourteen a human being has twenty eight teeth- by adulthood, thirty two. In humans, a display of the front of those symbolises happiness. For an animal, a display of the teeth is a threat. Everything Nureyev has ever been has teeth marks on it.
Everything, because it has been a long time since he has felt like a person.
Rip out a tooth from the root. Same metallic taste in the back of the throat as with bleeding inside of the head. He tasted it sometimes even without the blood, was sure his mouth tore at the edges more and more these days even if he could never see it. His teeth had never finished coming through. Peter Nureyev had not been a whole man long enough for it. They had started pushing back on Brahma when he was a kid and were still aching. A reverse rebirth. Instead of sprouting he had pushed them back in and himself with them.
His lip is torn, equal amounts makeup and gore, and by morning he will have folded that back into himself, too, a private little dance of despair; for now he closes his eyes, and listens to the quiet beastly rumble of the ship, and feels the vibration against his thighs. Somewhere along tonight’s dance he has ended up on the floor. Even through his lids he sees the red.
This ship touches too many nerves. All exposed, all at the same time, like a broken tooth- he hears the splintering of it in the quiet times, when the rest of them are asleep, hears it like- like-
Like a knife. Like a body falling. Like the whole wide world stops to push him down. In the quiet times in his head he screams so much that he can hear it in his dreams.
The Carte Blanche has been to him a life of clenching teeth, of ribs coming loose and banging against the insides of his chest. He had not expected this, the violent anchoring that comes with the prospect of, well, reaching land, he supposes. It’s a thin line. He allows himself to fall to one side of it only when he is alone.
He sits on the floor and runs his tongue over his teeth. Wisdom teeth, sharpened canines, things that would mark him as himself should he die - a prospect that feels far too close and all too far these days, really, and even closer in the nights. When the crew heads to bed. When the lights dim and turn to red. It’s for their eyes- he knows, he knows, it is not his first time on a ship. Intimately he knows the importance of protecting one’s own assets. He knows the simple functions of the world he inhabits. He does not know how to live with this for as long as he has.
Nureyev does not believe in a god, but it would be funnier, he thinks, if there was one. Not for the redemption. Simply because, at least, then there would be someone to amuse with the show of a life he is putting on.
His skin’s about ready to crawl right off the meat of him, all pins and pricks and little ants underneath it. Maybe that would be amusing to a god, too, or perhaps even a particularly schadenfreude-driven human being. It is not fun for him, but that might just mean that he is not as much of a human being as he likes to play at, and really, he has never quite been- a human being is composed of memories and ties and actions and reactions, as much of the world around them as they are of the world inside them. Nureyev is full of dust and glass, he thinks, taking up all the space between his organs.
It’s not his fault. Some people are just born this way.
But he feels it. Has felt it every night since the very first one, sharp edges beginning to poke at the soft meaty parts of his insides as soon as the lights go down, as the ship turns red. He tries to sleep but ends up tossing and turning for hours, each night the same, each morning the struggle of covering up the dark bags under his eyes. Inside himself, he’s practically invisible; has lived holed up in his own brain for so long that he has made a home in there, private and secluded and so, so lonely, but the kind of loneliness that he is okay with, that lets him operate. No distractions other than the ones outside. No distractions. No distractions. And the light is so red.
Peter Nureyev is not composed of parts. He is compromised of them.
He looks at his hands only to make sure they are clean. He has long hands, slender fingers, equal parts thief and musician; he focuses on them, the dimensions of them, the lines running neat along the inner parts of his knuckles and where his palm bends. One of his nails is chipped slightly on the side. He tells himself he does not see the shaking. Does not feel the fake sticky warmth-going-quickly-cold of imagined blood. He claws the metal floor with his other hand until it makes sound. I’m still here.
Against all odds or wisdom to the contrary, he is still here.
He doesn’t know what here is. Here, in the Carte Blanche. Here, alive. Here, in this world. He circles them and none feel quite right. Can he be there, when there’s no he? No names, no histories, no symbols. Surely he liked it, once upon a time. Surely, surely. He closes his eyes and sees the blood. He opens them again and feels it on his hands.
There is no blood, but in the low red light of the ship, he can’t quite convince himself he doesn’t see it anyway.
When he was a child, he could tell how long a body had been dead for just by looking at it. It was a skill when one had grown up as he did; the fresher the body, the less likely there would be another shot there right then, but the more likely that a constable would show up. A tricky game, but Nureyev was a fast learner- one had to be, if one wanted to stay alive. If one wanted to do much of anything in the space a boy called Peter Nureyev had occupied. Street urchins did not live well, and they were not kind people, but the Carte Blanche reminded him of those days, in a way. A strange, upside down way. In the streets you had to stay together out of necessity, because you needed someone to keep watch, someone to help get food, someone to distract, someone to warn. Peter Nureyev has seen his fair share of childhood allies go to bed with empty stomachs and not wake up. Peter Ransom wakes up every morning to a warm bed and eats a full breakfast with a crew of five people which he does not worry might pass in the night. He tells himself he doesn’t think about it often, but when one is a liar, they don’t often spare themselves.
This is it, this Peter Nureyev. A man who looks at the promise of companionship and sees all the dead bodies he has ran away from.
He doesn’t know if he ought to call himself a child. He knows he was one, once, but it never quite felt that way. The Brahman streets spat him out half grown, and he grew like a wild oat until Mag picked him up.
The blood grows hot again. He turns his hand into a fist and smacks it against his chest with enough force to feel it.
Memory is a strange word. Has never served him well. Never offered him anything except the knowledge that comes with a practiced sleight of hand. Mostly it has only taken. His head swims with it; his eyes burn, too dry, too unblinking against the light. Oh , he thinks, clutching the front of his shirt. It rumples up in his grip like tissue paper. Oh, he thinks. This is not ideal.
A wiser man might have woken Vespa. The man that was yes-Peter not-Ransom felt himself grow lead-heavy against the floor and silently listened to the engine-sound of his heart all the way in his mouth.
He had weaved Peter Ransom out of moonlight and broken promises and all the rage ugly and his seated deep in the crevices of his gut. Gave him a name full of teeth and turned his body into a killing floor, his mind into a slaughterhouse, a sharp-eyed graveyard for the cadavers of the feelings that had died long ago but he still carried with him, didn’t know how to put them down. He turned his ache into a religion and wore it like an armor. Peter Ransom stood straight but relaxed; Peter Ransom had a silver tongue and a silver smile and delicate silver earrings; Peter Ransom wanted his crime flawless and Peter Ransom had no shadows of debts haunting him and Peter Ransom did not ache deep in his innards every time his captain called him Pete. And Peter Nureyev hated Peter Ransom with all the fire in his coward’s heart. And he wanted nothing more than to fade into him and forget who he had existed as before.
Peter Ransom would not be hiding himself away in the early hours of the morning crumbled on the floor of a ship and Peter Ransom would not press his back against the cold wall and put his finger between his teeth to keep despairing breaths at bay but he was not Peter Ransom, and he was weak and he was a craven, and so the man who does not call himself Peter Nureyev presses his back against the cold wall and puts his finger between his teeth to keep despairing breaths at bay and he closes his eyes and hopes, silently, desperately, that there are enough doors left in his mind to hide this behind. And he knows, painfully, with every exposed nerve and every lousy dishonest heartbeat that from here on there is no going back.
He has good teeth. Sharp teeth, clean teeth, smiles with his mouth closed on stealth missions and with his mouth open when he wants to charm. He has trapped himself behind those teeth. How red. How red they must look in the dim light. Red in his eyes, red on his teeth, on his hands, locked in his brain. Red in this heart that keeps betraying him. Cut him open and watch it spill out. He is leaving this ship in a body bag regardless.
And with a clarity so sharp it carves right through, the reminder of a warm bed and a warmer body and thoughts that never leave the safety of the pillow. And he aches. And he wants to open his mouth and cut himself open. And the light is so red.
Peter Nureyev tells him: Everything you have touched has died. Peter Nureyev tells him: Not everything. Peter Nureyev tells him: All you have ever desired you have put between your teeth. You were born selfish and your gums were the first to know it. Peter Nureyev tells him: Once you gave up everything for other people. Peter Nureyev tells him: You are other people.
He is not other people: he is a ransom note to himself from himself, a cruel mockery of his name, organs inside him that do not feel like his own and teeth in his mouth that do, and when he looks in the mirror he sees himself and he sees the refraction of what used to be a better person.The hunger of his childhood never left him. It only grew with him. Morphed when he did, swallowed enough new names to gag on. He would be a ship of Theseus if it was not for this hollowness in his chest. In the night it goes for his throat.
He thought he knew hunger before. These days he looks at the people that call themselves a family and finds that the desire is shaped like hands around blasters and eyes reflecting streams and unbearable touches against his shoulders and he wants to bite into it with an animal ferocity, latch on, not let go. Put it behind his teeth where he can keep it safe.
Some of us will be okay.
Peter Nureyev is selfish. The naming of his longing feels like a confessional, hot and red inside his lungs, under his tongue. His heart is all wandering hands and straying eyes. His heart is a naked little traitor clawing at the bars. Sometimes it is the only part of him not built of bone. There is nothing in his limbs but a cold blue numbness when he finds it in him to unfold and stand. And after tonight he will not know this man. And in the morning he will be a different person. And he thinks: Some of us will be okay.
Some of us will not be.
How terrible, he condescends, that you would do this to yourself. He is leaving this ship in a body bag regardless. The only question is which self will be in it. How lonely you must be. And in the red of his mouth, his wisdom teeth ache.