She thinks he's dead, at first. Something about the slump of his body, the looseness of his limbs. But no, he stirs at the scraping of metal on stone – not dead, but not too far from it. She doesn't need to pull him up or talk him into trusting her, either. He sees the open door, the light bursting in from outside, hears the shouts and shots of chaos descending on itself. "Come on," she says, standing back from the opening, and he hauls himself up and makes his unsteady way towards her without a hint of protest.

...

...

Her car is small but powerful, thanks to the downsized gigahorse engine she'd back-engineered off a wreck in the cliffs, and it gets good mileage for any vehicle forced to ride across sand and dirt. They make good time away from what's left of the slavers' hold. She'd fair well blasted it out of the rock after everyone else was safely away, and it makes for a satisfying sight in her rear-view mirror. Her passenger had been the last one out, either not realizing that liberation was at hand or else simply too far-gone to care. She thinks it's the second one.

He still hasn't said a word to her, just turned his head to watch the passing landscape with glazed eyes and little interest. She's met people like this before – not uncommon, out in the Wastes – whose minds have broken under the hardships they've been forced to endure, leaving the body little more than a shell acting out the motions of life. There's not much to do with such people, except give them a safe place and a pleasant job and hope that sanity will come creeping cautiously back.

There's always the chance that his silence is the result of something more physical, though, particularly given where and how she found him, so she asks.

"You sick?"

He shakes his head absently.

"Hurt?"

Another head shake.

"You understand what I'm saying, right?" That gets her a sidelong stare and the hint of a raised eyebrow. There's something in his eyes that looks like condescension.

"Don't talk much, do you," she says lightly.

He looks away again. She huffs.

"Forget how?"

He gestures vaguely to his face, but the motion is limp and indistinct, and he seems to be retreating back into himself.

"Fair enough," Gaby says, and shifts into a higher gear as they hit the hard-packed road. "Fair enough."

Even if he is crazy, she's hardly the craziest person she's met.

...

...

Once they make it back within range of the Spires, Gaby stops and fires up a series of flares. Friendly, no pursuit, bringing people. She and her haphazard convoy are guided in soon after, and two Sisters are waiting in front of the lower cavern to receive and process their new guests. They'll be taken to find food and medical treatment, and then will be shown around and left to explore and wander where they will. Nila and Thorn are good at what they do, and are already greeting people and guiding them towards the steps to the Half Dome above.

Gaby's work here is officially done, but her passenger still hasn't made a move to get out of the car, so she leans across him and pushes open the door.

"Follow them," she says, pointing to the backs of the milling crowd. The man hums, considering, but doesn't move. He brings three fingers up in front of him and draws them downwards before making a twisting motion with his closed fist. The signs are rough, informal, but she knows what he means. Bars. Key. Prison.

"It's not a prison," she says. "We won't keep you here. There's food and supplies, and a place to sleep, and if you want to leave then we'll give you what you need and let you go."

He peers into the cave, then around at the vivid, barren desert behind them, then back at Gaby. He narrows his eyes, then holds up his right hand, open as if for a handshake. Promise, he's challenging her, and his eyes are hard and alive for the first time since she'd met him. She clasps his hand in hers and grips it tight. "I promise," she says firmly, meeting piercing blue with equal resolve. "You will be safe here, and you will be free."

...

...

It turns out that her mute knows how to read and write, and so in time she learns about him. She learns that he calls himself Solo, but that he used to be known as Silvertongue. Then his quick fingers and smooth words got him into trouble one too many times and that silver tongue had been cut right out of his lying mouth. So now he's silent and alone, and Solo suits him better.

His thief's fingers still work just fine, though, and he puts himself to work with small-scale mechanics and electronics. The library has a book on sign language, from the Beforetimes, and she drops it on his bed one day along with a stack of old notebooks and some charcoal-tipped pencils.

They learn it together, him writing down what he means and then signing and mouthing the words as well as he's able.

Gaby learns that she's good at reading lips.

...

...

Slowly, Solo loses some of his vacant paranoia and starts to relax into the rhythms of life in the Spires. He still drifts sometimes, trailing phantoms only he can see, but then again, who doesn't have ghosts? Sometimes he disappears into his room and stays there for days on end. She never questions him, even when he returns looking ragged and worn. All of them are broken in their own way – some in their bodies, but most in their minds, and how they choose to cope with their lingering horrors is up to them.

Sometimes he forgets that he can't talk, and he snaps his jaws too late to catch the jarring, indistinct sounds of a tongueless mouth. The fury that burns hot in his eyes at times like that is never quite enough to hide the shame and the grief behind it. Gaby doesn't mention it, doesn't acknowledge that she's seen it, and she doesn't care if it's the right thing to do or the easy thing. Everyone's hurting, one way or another. Everyone has to find a way to carry on.

"Don't talk with your hands full," she'll say instead, and he'll loosen his white-knuckled grip on the screwdriver or wrench or whatever it is he's working with next to her and repeat himself with terse, angry signs. He won't move his lips, and he won't open his mouth, not even to eat, until he's alone.

But the next day he'll be a little less bristly, a little less angry. The day after, he'll be relaxed again, almost carelessly competent in that quiet way of his. Sometimes he even smiles just a little, and she gets a glimpse of who he might have been before.

He's far from whole, but he's alive, and he's inching back towards the light. In this world, that's enough to be getting on with.

...


I don't even know why I wrote this, but thank you for reading it!