Clem meets Gur Sevraq on the cold deck of Fort Icebreaker. The chill of the incoming storm sinks through the fabric of her too-stylish jacket and the headache that's been building all day throbs behind her eyes. Being summoned by Gur has not improved her mood.
They look, when she sees them, almost contrite. She is by no means an expert in such things, but if there is one thing she does know it’s the body language of someone who is about to give her bad news.
He tells her, his tone gentle, that they have not yet heard back from Kesh regarding her ransom. His hands flex, and Clem thinks that if she were a different person, perhaps, they would have put a hand on her shoulder, a show of comfort in the wake of such news.
She is not a different person, and Gur’s hands remain by their side.
Clem feels a boiling wave of anger sweep over her and then break, washing out of her body and leaving her weak at the knees. Gur catches her arm, surprise on his face.
"I… yes," says Clem faintly, "yes, of course, I should have expected-"
Her eyes prickle with heat, her cheeks already burning as Gur’s expression turns to concern. Anger claws in her throat again, but it is pulled down into the hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach. She doesn’t want his sympathy , he’s as much to blame for her current predicament as any of them. She shakes herself out of their grip, trying to keep her breathing steady.
"We will give you time, of course," says Gur, "to get your things together and find accommodation elsewhere-'
"Yes, of course," says Clem, no longer listening, "I- excuse me-'
She turns away, ignoring his calls after her and walking quickly back to her room. She makes it to the deck her room is on before her eyes prickle again, tears threatening to break free. She breaks into a run, past caring who sees her as long as they can’t read her expression. She slams the door behind her, leaning back on it, her breathing loud in her small room.
There was so much she would need to plan now, where to go, what allies she still had left available to her now that Kesh was- now that Crysanth had decided to- her mother had-
A harsh sob breaks out of her throat and Clem claps a hand over her mouth, muffling the sound as she slides to the floor. She can hear the storm begin to rage outside and Clem wishes she had its fury instead of the gnawing feeling in the pit of her stomach.
It was one thing to know that you were a piece on Kesh's chessboard and another thing entirely to feel so disposable, to have proof to look to as to how little you truly mattered. It was one thing to be a disappointment and another thing to be cast out entirely, your family gone from you along with your name and your future.
From her position on the floor Clem can see part of her reflection in the dressing table mirror, her long hair pulled out of its neat style by the wind and her eyes red-rimmed. She can so clearly picture Crysanth's expression of she were to see Clem in this moment, the disdain she would have for such an emotional display. She feels her cheeks flush and she pushes herself up, turning her eyes away from her reflection. She has to pack. That, at least, she can do. She'll figure out the rest of it later. She's always been better at making up a plan in the moment anyway.
She’s managed to get most of her clothes back inside her various suitcases by the time Gucci knocks on her door. She doesn’t wait for Clem to give permission to enter, as though Clem were still in her tiny cell on the lower decks and Clem feels a spike of irritation as Gucci sits on the ornate chair at her dressing table. She can feel Gucci’s eyes on her but she doesn’t look up, making precise folds in her shirts to pack them, as she’s seen her maids do hundreds of times. They're not as neat, but it's close enough that she can pretend to have done it properly. Gucci, for all that she pretends to be of the people, will hardly be able to spot the difference.
“Are you really taking all this with you?” says Gucci, finally breaking the silence.
Clem shoots her a glare before she remembers that she’s ignoring her.
“I mean,” continues Gucci, “I know you’ve been working out, but I think even Sovereign Immunity would have a hard time carrying all of these.”
Gucci's light tone prickles on Clem's skin, and she glares at her again.
“Oh, and just because he can’t do something it’s impossible?” says Clem, “Am I not allowed to take my things with me when I am forced to leave my ship ?”
Gucci gives Clem a look, irritatingly calm. Clem curls her fingers, her nails digging into her palms through the fabric of the silk shirt in her hands. Oh, it was always so easy for Gucci, always good in school, good at parties, good at being a revolutionary. Sovereign Immunity would never tell her that her mech work needed practise. If she was held to ransom, her family would no doubt rally behind her cause, or any cause she asked them to. If she were to leave Fort Icebreaker it would surely be to fanfare, people celebrating her moving on to better things, remembered as a hero.
Clem has no doubt they will try to erase the fact that she was ever there at all, minimising her few, hard-won accomplishments as cleanly as her mother has. She will have no past, no top of having no future. She twists the shirt in her hands, wrinkling the fabric.
“That's not what I’m saying,” says Gucci, “I just meant that you need to be practical. You can’t carry all this yourself. You won't- I don't think there'll be a porter service... wherever it is you're going."
She's fishing for information, and doing a far clumsier job of it than usual. Clem feels another flash of irritation. Gucci, too, is to blame in some part. She had, after all, let them destroy Cruciat, destroy Clem's throne, without even a word against it.
Clem summons her iciest Kesh princess voice. “Thank you Garantine, but when I want your advice about what I can and can’t do, I’ll ask for it. Please close the door on your way out.”
Gucci doesn’t move. “So you’re just going to sulk in here until you get dragged out?
“I’m not sulking ,” says Clem, holding up the shirt, “I’m packing.”
“Right,” says Gucci, “So instead of forming an actual plan of what to do-”
“Packing is a plan!”
“Barely!” says Gucci, standing up. She takes a step towards Clem. “Honestly, Clementine, this has been the problem the entire time, instead of helping you just lock yourself away-”
Clem feels herself go cold. “Well if I’m of no help to anyone then it’s just a- a- a waste of your time to be here isn’t it?”
“Clem,” says Gucci, “you know that's not what I meant-”
Clem turns away, shoving clothes haphazardly into the closest suitcase. “I'm sure you’re needed elsewhere Saint Dawn .”
Gucci sighs. “Clem…”
Clem doesn't move until she hears Gucci close the door behind her. She slumps forward, one hand braced on the lid of her suitcase for a moment as her vision blurs, and she squeezes her eyes shut.
Gucci is right of course. She's always, annoyingly, right. Packing is barely a plan and the only thing crying in her room will do is get her thrown off Fort Icebreaker without anything at all. She would least like to have some kind of destination in mind when she heads out into this miserable new world.
She lets out a breath. She still has some money and time left. She just needs a plan.
"So then what?"
Clem lifts her head, squinting as she tries to focus her eyes. The bar’s lights are dimmed, to create atmosphere as well as to make them harder to hit should war break out over their heads. Humphrey, the bartender-slash-owner, leans their hip against the bar, refilling her glass as she gestures for another drink.
Clem frowns, trying to remember exactly where she was in retelling her story. "Well then I... came here."
Humphrey raises their eyebrows at her. "To get drunk at a resort?"
"You are hardly a resort any more," says Clem. "There’s no spa, no services, no hotel apart from the shabby little rooms you keep upstairs. You don't even operate on the beach."
Humphrey glares at her. "You're on a very high horse for someone on such a generous tab."
Clem gasps. "I didn't ask for your generosity! I would never have-"
“In that case,” says Humphrey smoothly as they pull a receipt out of their pocket, “pay up.”
The numbers on the receipt swim in front of her eyes. Clem closes her eyes, then opens them again. The money she owes comes into focus and Clem frowns, closing her eyes and reading it again. It is considerably larger than she had been expecting, but then again the price on anything with even reasonable quality went up the closer Kesh raids got closer to the island.
“Just charge it to my account.”
“That’s what I’ve been doing,” says Humphrey, “I hope you’ve got another account somewhere else, because that one stopped working about seven drinks ago.”
Clem opens her mouth and then closes it again, her cheeks burning. “Well, that’s- you should have said something earlier, I don’t see why I should-”
“You said you were good for it and I believed you, fool that I am. Now.” They reach forward to tap the receipt. “What are you going to do about this?”
Her thoughts feel hard to grasp in her mind, which had been wonderful when she had been avoiding having any thoughts at all, the desired effect of overindulging in whatever top-shelf liquor the resort’s bar still had left in stock. Faced with an unexpected financial situation, it's much less enjoyable.
“What do you normally do?” says Clem, “Surely this is not the first time someone has… has…”
“Been flat broke while drinking here?”
“Had a disruption of finances,” says Clem, as primly as she can manage.
They huff a laugh. “Well, time was we’d get security to escort them to their departure point-”
Clem feels a wave of dizziness hit her, and she grabs the edge of the bar to stop herself from falling. The other patrons of the bar, either in a similar state to her or too caught up in their own worries, pay her no attention.
“But with everything going on, security is a little… well. They asked me to sort out any issues here myself,” continues Humphrey. They give her a considering look. “You could always work off your tab.”
“ What ?”
“Well if you don’t like that idea I’d be happy to hand you over to security,” said Humphrey, “They don’t like to do bar work any more but they sure as hell still like making arrests.”
“Well- that’s- fine ,” says Clem, “Fine, fine, fine.” She gestures behind them. “Now that that’s sorted…”
“You cannot be serious,” says Humphrey, “You just saw how much you owe me, how long do you want to be working here?”
Clem shrugs. “I don’t suppose it matters. It's not as though I’m expected anywhere else.”
She wakes up the next morning terrifically hungover and, for the first time in her life, employed.
If Humphrey knows who, exactly, they have employed they don't show it. Possibly her appearance is so different to how she appeared in Kesh propaganda that they don't, or perhaps they've heard of her fall from any kind of leadership and decided to avoid the topic. Either way, Clem finds herself grateful not to discuss it, and to let Humphrey do the talking when Kesh soldiers come around, taking a break from their patrols.
Even if they didn't know, they'd probably prefer to serve anyone official themselves. Clem has a steady hand and no real desire to steal from the till but she doesn't have much in the way of customer service. It’s not as much of an issue for her as it could be - most of their regular patrons aren't looking for lengthy conversation, and the ones that are go directly to Humphrey, asking something of them in hushed, desperate tones as Humphrey shakes their head.
Clem always looks away from those conversations. She doesn’t need to hear them to guess at what they’re asking, and she certainly wants to avoid being drawn into the conversation. The islands have become something of a grey area, going back and forth between the hands of the Stels and Millenium Break, driving refugees of all kinds to their shores and leaving them stranded there as they search for a way to safety, as though there was such a thing left on Partizan. Certainly for anyone who has found themselves on the island safety is as out of reach as the stars, and is not anyone Humphrey is capable of helping, if they even wanted to.
"I'm already on the line enough just by being here." They give her a look. "Take my advice kid, and stay out of politics."
Clem nods, swallowing down the swirling feeling in her stomach. They're right, of course. Even if she's not considered to be of value to Kesh there's sure to be someone that would try to use her as a piece in their political games. Besides, certainly her time with Millenium Break proved that she doesn't have good instincts where such things are concerned. She can't imagine sneaking boats through dangerous waters would go any better for her.
For herself, Clem has no real desire to leave. Working off her debt, while embarrassing, leaves her too tired for dreams and keeps her mind from pointlessly looping the events of Fort Icebreaker in her mind during her waking hours, becoming an anonymous figure behind the bar. She stays in one of the rooms above the bar with her various trunks, unopened since her arrival, crowding the small space. She lives out of one of the smaller suitcases, glad that the island has still kept its warm climate despite what other changes have occurred across it, allowing her to leave most the clothes she’d worn on Fort Icebreaker packed away, the reminder of her former life tucked out of sight.
Perhaps it wouldn’t matter even if she could bring herself to find them. Rarely does anyone important enough to recognise her come to the island, and even when they do the sight of her working behind a bar is surely incongruent enough with the image of her from the newsreels that they probably assume they’re mistaken. As offensive as such thinking is, it serves her well, and she stays hidden as Kesh grows closer to their small island, mech battles and explosions making the glassware shudder on the shelves.
She had, perhaps, been a little blunt in her assessment to Humphrey but not untruthful - much like everything else, the resort as she had known it was gone. Even before she had left Fort Icebreaker the resort village had been turned from a vacation spot for Partizan's wealthy residents to a place people scraped out a living while they tried to reach for somewhere to call home. The buildings that have been left standing are repurposed into marketplaces and temporary barracks, the fancy hotel rooms split into tiny apartments, the jetty that once held twilight cocktail parties turned into a loading dock.
Soldiers gather at the bar, to celebrate or commiserate or both, and with them comes a familiar face. Mourningbride arrives without fanfare, one of many uniformed security personnel crowding into the bar to pass the time until they’re shipped along to their next point of battle in the morning.
Clem skirts around her, her shoulders hunched, trying her best to remain unseen as she slides drinks across the bar to the waiting soldiers.
Mourningbride tilts her head. “Have you worked here long?”
Clem’s stomach squirms and she grabs a nearby cloth, focusing on wiping down spilt liquor on the bar. She can feel her hands shake, keeping her movements quick in an attempt to disguise it. She makes a shrugging motion.
Mourningbride knocks on the bar. Clem looks up and then hurriedly looks down again, hoping her glance was fast enough that Mourningbride didn’t catch her panicked expression.
“A little while,” says Clem, pitching her voice slightly higher, hoping that it’s enough.
Mourningbride hums. She tilts forward, going up on her toes to lean over the bar, close to Clem. Clem presses her toes into the sides of her boots, trying to keep the tension of her body somewhere that Mourningbride can’t see.
“Did anyone ever tell you,” says Mourningbride, her voice quiet and deadly, “that you look a lot like Clementine Kesh?”
Clem goes still, feeling the warmth drain from her body. She looks up slowly, into the unblinking face of Mourningbride. The corners of Mourningbride’s mouth twitch upwards, and panic flutters in Clem’s stomach, up into her throat. She swallows hard, her mind racing.
“You must be mistaken,” says Clem, “There’s no such person as Clementine Kesh anymore.”
Mourningbride blinks, the corners of her mouth twitching again. She huffs a laugh, leaning back, away from Clem. Out of sight, underneath the bar, Clem grips the cloth tight, wrapping it around her knuckles. Mourningbride considers her for a long moment, and Clem forces herself not to look away.
“No,” says Mourningbride finally, “I don’t suppose there is. A pity.”
“Not really,” says Clem.
Mourningbride gives her a long look unblinking, lifting her glass in a kind of salute before she turns away, back towards the group that she’d come with. Clem waits for the space of one breath, then two, and then steps away, ducking into the storeroom and closing the doors behind her. She covers her mouth, muffling the sound of her shuddering breaths, until her hands stop shaking.
Mourningbride and the group she had come in with are gone, leaving only their empty glasses behind. Humphrey gives her a dirty look after she steps back out and she will almost certainly be hearing about her unlicensed break after the bar closes, but Clem finds it difficult to care. She lets out a long, slow breath and sets about gathering up the glasses, a kind of relief settling across her shoulders.
She catches sight of herself in one of the bar’s grimey windows, turning her face from the left to the right, examining herself. People used to tell her that she had her mother’s nose. Such a strange saying. As though Crysanth Kesh would ever give up a facial feature to someone else.
It’s still there along with the rest of her old self, underneath the exhaustion and sweat. Perhaps it always will be, enough so that those who knew her will always recognise her. Perhaps it is better, then, that she remains out of sight of them, so that she doesn’t always have to be as she was. Better that she remain frozen in their memories, angry and powerful, than have them see her as she is now.
The soldiers return the next night. Mourningbride isn’t amongst them, already shipped off to somewhere more exciting and noteworthy. Clem lets out a breath she hadn’t even realised she’d been holding. As exhausting as change is, it would be even more so to strive to be the Clementine Kesh of old, forever. Much better to let her fade peacefully away so that Clem can find someone else to be.
Unfortunately no peace can last forever on Partizan, especially not on an island situated in the tenuous stretch of ocean between the armies of the Stels and Millenium Break. The force of explosions in the waters surrounding the island combines with a rolling storm, sending waves through the streets and sending Humprey to their room, where they emerge with an overstuffed duffle bag and the bar’s cash box.
“I realise that as the manager you are allowed some liberties,” says Clem, “But I thought you had strict protocols about keeping the money in the safe?”
“The money only needs to stay in the safe as long as I’m here with it,” says Humphrey, “There’s a boat leaving tonight for Millenium Break waters and I intend to be on it, and if you have any sense you’ll be on it too.”
Something cold clenches in the pit of Clem’s stomach at the thought of returning to Millenium Break, even if she had the money to do so.
“I’d rather not, thank you.”
Humphrey stops, turning to look at her. “Listen, you- I’m leaving. Consider your debt paid and get out of here.”
“And go where ?” says Clem.
Humphrey throws their hands up. “Anywhere but here.”
They push past her, rushing down the stairs and into the waterlogged streets.
“What am I supposed to do now?” yells Clem after them, “Who’s going to run this place?”
“If you like it here so much why don't you run it?” Humphrey yells over their shoulder.
The door to the bar slams shut behind him and then open again, the wind knocking it back against the wall. Clem sits on Humphrey’s bed for a moment, listening to the quiet thunk-thunk of the door. She takes a deep breath, tipping her head up to look at the worn fresco painting on the roof above her. It’s of some Divines, she thinks, a tiny figure of a human and a mech, both reaching for a golden orb. She tilts her head, letting out a sigh and pushing herself up off the bed. She never was any good at history, and besides, she’s not likely to ever meet a Divine again, as discarded as she has been by those of importance. Whatever tale the cracked fresco tells is unlikely to be one she'll ever need to know.
She swallows down her bitter thoughts and walks downstairs to shut the door, and then begins the work of clearing the water and smashed glass from the floor. Although she should probably begin to think of some kind of plan, she mentally avoids the subject, methodically working on setting the bar to rights again. The sun is just beginning to rise through the clouds when there’s a knock at the door.
Clem opens it enough to peek through, letting in the humid air of the street. Instead of the Kesh soldiers she half expected to see, it is a rather drenched deliveryman, half a dozen boxes stacked on a trolley behind him.
“Liquor delivery,” says the man, “You the owner?”
“I- Yes. Yes I suppose I am,” says Clem.
“Great,” says the man, “sign here.”
With a few strokes of her pen, Clem becomes, for all intents and purposes, the owner of a crumbling, waterlogged bar.
She lugs the boxes inside, looking them over. They're almost as worse for wear as the bar but they are, for now, hers. Something close to delight unfurls in Clem's chest, and she feels a smile slowly bloom across her face. She lifts her hand to her mouth and then lets it drop. With no one to see she allows her feeling to show on her face, at least for a moment.
“Well,” says Clem to the empty bar, “I suppose that’s a good enough plan for now.”
She moves her belongings into Humphrey’s slightly larger room and collapses onto the bed, too blissfully tired to even pull the covers over herself and only waking when people begin to knock at the door in the late afternoon, clamoring for the bar to open. She pulls open her window, looking down at the small ramshackle crowd, some she recognises, some she doesn’t. A few of them look up at her and Clem feels a flare of panic.
“Five minutes!” Clem shouts down to them, and slams the window shut.
She splashes some cool water on her face and attempts to pull her hair into some kind of style. She’s never been particularly good at doing her own hair, and even if she was she ran out of her preferred styling products months ago. She huffs a breath, blowing a sweaty strand out of her face. The island is always so dreadfully humid after a storm, the heat of her long hair reminding her of the heat of her long-ago fever. It's not a particularly auspicious start to her first day as a professional bar owner.
There’s a pair of scissors, lying on top of Humphrey’s dresser. Large and sharp, like the kind used for dressmaking.
Clem looks at them, then at herself in the mirror, then back at the scissors.
The knocking starts again at the door downstairs.
“Oh for-" huffs Clem, and picks up the scissors.
She cuts her hair roughly, strands of gold falling to the floor until her formerly waist-length hair sits close to her ears. She runs a hand through it, sighing at the breeze she imagines she feels against her neck. She blinks at herself in the mirror, a strange version of herself blinking back at her. Clem reaches out, touching her fingertips to the cool glass, taking in the stranger before her.
The knocking gets louder.
“I’m coming !” yells Clem, and stomps downstairs.
If any of the regulars are surprised by Humphrey’s absence, they don’t mention it. The rest of the night is the same as ever, and Clem rushes back and forth, settling fights over card games, mixing drinks, and trying to seem like she knows what she’s doing.
It's not until she collapses into bed in the early hours of the morning, when she hears fireworks being let off outside, that she realises what day it is. It's one of the minor Kesh holidays - strange to be reminded of Kesh when she is as far from home as she has ever been, even if it is just an excuse for a party under the guise of honouring a more patriotic version of historical events.
It's also, more notably, her birthday.
Her real birthday, not the day a month and a half from now that was set aside for public celebrations to prevent clashes in Crysanth's social calendar. She blinks up at the ceiling, listening to the tail end of the celebrations outside. When she was little she had pretended that they were for her, that people somehow knew that it was her birthday and they were secretly letting her know.
Foolish, really. Crysanth had all but scrubbed her actual birthday from the records in her usual thorough manner, never to be mentioned. Clem wouldn't have been surprised if she had removed her replacement birthday entirely along with her name.
She wonders if that gives her her original birthday back, or if it means she has none at all. How strange to be a woman with no name who was never born, thinks Clem, drifting off to sleep to the sound of celebrations that have never been for her. Perhaps she'll take the fireworks back, and pretend they're for her again. There's no one to scoff at her for it, now.
Her last thought is a strangely practical one - a large Kesh celebration meant a large group of Kesh soldiers on leave. She should order more liquor, next time. That would be a good idea, a solid plan.
Clem pours her focus into the bar. She's sure there must be some better way to organise things, but she's entirely too tired at the end of each day to figure out what that better way is. A plan for another day, perhaps.
Probably, she should hire someone to help her. Humphrey never looked anywhere close to as exhausted as she feels by the end of the night. She doesn't really know how to do that - after all, she only got hired due to her desperate financial situation, and it seems unlikely that such a thing could conveniently befall someone else. They get a wide variety of people through the bar, but she's the only former Kesh nobility to step foot in there so far. Everyone else seems to do a much better job at holding onto their money.
She must do a good enough job of running things anyway - she must do too good a job of it - because it’s only a week later when one of those new faces approaches her, wide eyed, and asks if she’s the owner. Clem knows that look - people used to give Humphrey that look all the time, asking them to get them safe passage to Millenium Break-controlled space.
“Suppose I am,” says Clem warily, “What would you want from me if I was?”
“Please,” says the young woman quickly, “you must help me, I need to get to Fort Icebreaker-”
Clem goes very still. "You must have me mistaken for someone else. I've been reliably informed that I am no good at helping anyone, especially where Fort Icebreaker is concerned."
She turns, shrugging out of the woman’s grip as she tries to grab at Clem’s shoulder, and slips back behind the bar. She can see, out of the corner of her eye, where the young woman slumps down at a table towards the back of the room, joined by two Apostalisians not much older than she is. They speak together in hushed voices, worry clear on their faces.
Clem pours herself a drink and tries her best to ignore them.
Fort Icebreaker is still standing, she knows that much from the news streams, from Gur Servaq hacking into broadcasts to preach their sermons. She can always catch a glimpse of a painfully familiar face in the background, Millie and Sovereign Immunity and Gucci, always standing tall behind him without any sign of where she would have stood beside them. Perhaps they wouldn't have allowed it, even if she was still on board, sending her down to the farming deck whenever the feed went live. Perhaps she would have chosen to slip away even if they had asked, to keep her rebellion off the record in case the tide of war turned away from their favour.
She considers the three youths huddled at the back of the bar. No one is paying any kind of attention to how rebellious she is now. Now she has no allegiances, and so she cannot really rebel against anything other than her own good sense.
They’re still there at closing time and Clem approaches them with a sigh.
“Look,” says Clem, “You- There’s a room upstairs. You can stay there tonight if you- I assume you have nowhere else to go, if you’re here.”
One of the Apostalisians nods cautiously. Clem nods back in what she hopes is a decisive way, and turns back to clean up the bar. There’s a noise from behind her, and she turns to see the three of them stacking the chairs on the tables, one of them gathering up dirty glasses. Normally, that was a job she did by herself, alone and exhausted. It makes her think of the early days on Fort Icebreaker, all of them struggling to find a way to keep the machinery running.
Something twists in her stomach and she swallows it down.
She keeps swallowing it until much later in the night, staring up at her new ceiling. The golden orb is just visible in the gloom, occasionally illuminated by flashes of the Kesh mech’s spotlights as they patrol off-shore. No doubt it was only a matter of time before whatever trouble they were in caught up to the three people currently in the room next door. Judging by their scruffy appearance, she doubted that they had enough money between them to make it onto one of the boats that secreted people away to the safety of Millenium Break, and even that amount of money would be useless against Kesh forces.
Clem lets out a sigh, pushing herself up. She blinks at herself in the mirror, still slightly startled by the new length of her hair. She runs her hand through it again. It has gone slightly curly in the humid air and she tilts her head, a curl flopping over one of her eyes. She has never looked less, she thinks, like the Clementine Kesh from the propaganda films her mother had produced.
Perhaps she’s someone else, then. Perhaps she can be, if she plans to be.
It is that thought that propels her forward, opening one trunk and then another to find her long-disused communicator. She makes a face, ignoring the missed calls and unread messages as she scrolls up and down the short list of contacts, finally settling on a name. There's really only one person it would be reasonable to call, and luckily he was one of the few still likely to answer without causing a fuss or broadcasting it to the rest of Partizan.
The Blossom, awake either due to their own projects or some time difference in their current location, answers after the third ring, smiling in surprise at the sight of her.
“Quite the new look,” says The Blossom.
Clem touches her fingers to the back of her neck. “I- yes, I suppose it is.”
“I don’t suppose that was the sole reason for your call,” says The Blossom, a wry tilt to his lips.
“No,” says Clem, “Not exactly.” She takes a breath, bracing herself against his refusal. "I wanted to ask for- to ask for your assistance on a project I'm considering."
He leans forward. "What kind of a project?"
"Well," says Clem.
It’s not a complete disaster, really, considering it’s her first time attempting to outwit Kesh and Apostalisian forces without any real tech and only The Blossom for aid. They watch the rickety mail carrier boat get smaller and smaller in the darkness as it heads towards Millenium Break controlled waters, the three people safe inside because Clem was able to make them so.
Something stirs in her chest and she bites her lip to stop the laughter that threatens to burst forth. She wonders if this is how Gucci feels when she’s flying about people as Saint Dawn, untouchable and filled with possibility.
“Well,” says The Blossom, “that was a mess.”
“Yes,” says Clem, the joy bubbling in her chest threatening to burst forth, “Absolutely, a terrible… a terrible idea.”
The Blossom gives Clem a look and she presses her lips together, ducking her head to hide a smile. From his expression, she doesn’t do a very good job.
“I'm serious Clementine,” he says, “it's- I'm not saying it wasn't good to help them but it- doing such things puts you in a tenuous position.”
“I understand,” says Clem.
“I don't know that you do,” says The Blossom. He pauses. “There are a lot of people who would see you as a lever to Kesh's forces.”
Clem can't help it - she laughs. It's just such a strange thought, that helping three people get to Millenium Break will be the thing that destroys her when she's survived everything else. They would hardly be noticed by either side, that was half the reason she'd been able to do it in the first place. Like her, it's such a small thing, when compared to the rest of the war, practically invisible.
“Oh no, oh, my dear, dear Blossom,” says Clem, “I'm of no use to Kesh at all. I'm no more a lever than a grain of sand on this beach is a boulder.”
“Not everyone sees it that way.”
Even his serious tone isn't enough to quash down the bubbling feeling in her chest. “Should they try, they would soon discover what a useless exercise it is.”
“You don't seem too concerned by the idea of kidnapping.”
“I don't see how I would be any worse off than I am in my current position, or in my previous one,” says Clem, “Really Blossom, don't worry so.”
He sighs. “Just… don’t make a habit of it.”
“Of course,” says Clem.
She does, of course, end up making something of a habit of it. She's always found it difficult to stay away from things that pleased her, especially when it was something she had been warned to stay away from.
Although she’s always been terrible at fighting through forces in a mech, it feels like a breeze in comparison to skirt around them without one. Despite his warnings The Blossom helps her a little, finding forgers to make IDs to help people to stay out of harm’s way until they can get off of the island, finding her people who are willing to do the slightly more dangerous work of sailing people out of the island in ones and twos. She talks people into things and out of things, and, if that isn't enough to sway things in her favour, a well-placed bribe or two is usually enough to do the trick.
It's almost funny - when she was on Fort Icebreaker, trying so hard to make things go her way, things always seemed to go disastrously. Now, things are an absolute disaster almost all of the time but she usually ends up being able to help whoever she was trying to help, and she doesn't even have to take any more hits than when she was trying to be an infamous revolutionary.
Perhaps such comparisons are meaningless. After all by most metrics she has far less than she ever had on Fort Icebreaker - less money, less influence, less power to make change at a noticeable level. And yet still she can feel it more, even if she isn't moving the needle one way or another for the war at large. She pushes a boat offshore and she can feel the difference in the world, even if she never sees the boat reach its destination. The hope that it will get there is enough for her to live on.
The Blossom sighs at her as she limps her way into the bar, soaking wet from where she’d had to jump into the water to escape being seen as she'd helped the small hovercraft take off.
"I thought I told you not to get so involved?"
"I wasn't," says Clem, not bothering to put any effort at all into the lie, "I was just taking a walk. It's not a crime to take a walk."
"There's a curfew," says The Blossom.
Clem shrugs, wincing slightly as she pulls a stool down to sit on in front of the bar. The Blossom sighs, pouring her a drink.
"You should be more careful," he says.
He gives her a look.
"Normally," adds Clem. She huffs. "Really Blossom, are you this worried about everyone involved in such things? I don't remember you fussing so when I was on Fort Icebreaker."
"You were less likely to go for a midnight swim then," says The Blossom, "And there were more people to try and stop you if you did."
"I doubt they would have," says Clem into her glass. "No doubt they would have been thrilled if I went into the water."
"I don't know that that's true."
Clem shrugs, pushing the swirling feeling in her stomach down. "It hardly matters now, does it? They're not likely to notice what I do. That's part of why this works at all."
The Blossom hums and doesn't push it, and for that she is grateful.
She walks him to the door afterwards, the sun just beginning to rise over the water. It's only a few paces away from where they were drinking, but still. A lifetime of etiquette lessons means it's harder to shake some habits than others.
"Thank you for coming," says Clem, half on autopilot. She's a little surprised to find that she means it, which might be why she adds, "although I admit, I'm not quite sure what you expect to gain by continuing to do so."
"Nothing in particular," says The Blossom, "An additional buyer for Lambic House’s beer, perhaps, or… maybe I'm just interested to see how you're getting along in this new world we find ourselves in."
Clem feels her expression twist into something that lacks the warmth to truly be a smile. "I suppose I am something of a curiosity now."
"You do make me curious," says The Blossom, "I find that you never do quite what I expect. I look forward to seeing you again, and being surprised."
The Blossom smiles at her and puts a hand on her shoulder, comforting and warm in the cool morning air. Clem's throat aches sharply, and she swallows.
"I will try to keep being surprising then," Clem manages.
"Now that is one thing I believe you are naturally talented at," says The Blossom.
Clem thinks, sharply, of her last conversation with Sovereign Immunity, his bottomless disappointment so like her mother's, cutting her to the bone.
"The only thing, some might say."
"You can practice the rest," says The Blossom, "You seem quite good at that."
The Blossom squeezes her shoulder, letting his hand drop to his side, and waves goodbye.
Clem thinks about their conversation as she locks up the bar, readying herself for bed. Practising at practising. Well, she supposed one must start somewhere. That's a kind of plan too.
It's difficult sometimes to think of the few scattered people she sends out to Fort Icebreaker, making their new lives there where she had failed to. More difficult still to think that the people there she had once known will never know it was her that had sent them, that she actually has managed to do something, even if it is so small as to never make a difference to their forces.
Not everyone wants to go to Millenium Break, of course - some want to return home, wherever that is, or go to space, which is as challenging as it is expensive.
Some, even more surprisingly, stay on the island with Clem.
"Got nowhere else to go," says Nesoi with a shrug.
Their fins flutter, giving away their nerves, and they awkwardly shift the bag on their back. Although Clem came to the island with considerably more luggage, she recognises the expression. She's seen it often enough in her own face, after all.
"Fine," says Clem, "there's a room upstairs you can use. We open in an hour."
Nesoi nods and vanishes upstairs, coming back down with a look of grim determination on their face.
"Look," says Clem, "I don't have any problem with…" She gestures vaguely, hoping that Nesoi understands, "but do I need to worry about anyone looking for you in a way that would cause trouble?"
"Not anymore," says Nesoi.
"Right," says Clem, "Well, good."
She shows Nesoi where everything is before they open for the night and from that point on Clem is somehow responsible for both a bar and a staff member.
"I wasn't planning on it," says Clem.
The Blossom laughs, the sound of it staticy through the call. "When do you ever?"
Clem lets out a huff, crossing her arms over her chest. "They just- they didn't have anywhere they wanted to go, and I- well, things are quite busy, sometimes. It's not as though I can’t use someone else around here."
The Blossom's expression shifts into something she can't place. "Well."
Clem nods, her throat oddly tight.
"Let me know if you need any help doing creative payroll, I suppose," says The Blossom.
"Payroll?" says Clem.
The Blossom laughs, and a week later she's helping a jittery former Stel Orion accountant find a way off-planet in exchange for getting her books in order. It's easily one of the most boring things she's ever had to sit through but she forces herself to make careful notes as they explain to her how exactly to disguise where the bar's money is coming from (and, even more importantly, where it's going), just in case anyone comes calling. She makes the notes mainly to stay awake, but it has the unexpected bonus of actually coming in handy later, when she's trying to make her way through it herself. She doesn't do a perfect job of it on her own, but she no longer has to be perfect. Her mistakes are no longer newsworthy.
She's mostly freed from having to pay attention to the news entirely, although that doesn’t mean she’s gotten away from it. When the front lines of battle get too close to shore, the newsstreams feel practically inescapable, but she is freed from feeling personally responsible to how Millenium Break is represented in the press, or Stel Kesh, and she steadfastly avoids making comment on either when reporters and streamers stop by to get colour commentary from those on the island.
"I'm sure you can understand," says Clem, "It would be unwise for me to have an opinion on the record."
"Of course," says the reporter, making a show of turning the camera off as though she cannot see that their audio feed is still running, "but off the record…?"
Clem summons her Kesh princess smile, the bland politeness feeling strange on her face, and she shakes her head. "I apologise, I'm much too busy for such questions at the moment."
A few camera crews stake out a group of tables at the back of the bar, swapping grandiose war stories. Clem rolls her eyes, allowing herself a huff of annoyance in their direction as she turns away. Nesoi gives her an odd look and Clem raises her eyebrows at them.
"You really don't have an opinion either way?" They ask.
"I am far too well acquainted with both sides to have anything positive to say," says Clem, distracted as a Millenium Break broadcast is interrupted by a Kesh one.
The actual speech is by some Kesh officer, a general that she vaguely remembers being dreadfully boring at parties and a middling dancer to boot. Her mother stands behind him, almost hidden out of frame. Crysanth smiles, pleased with whatever the general is saying and Clem swallows hard, her heartbeat loud in her ears. She has the urge to duck under the bar, as though Crysanth can see her through the stream.
Nesoi puts her hand on Clem's arm, their touch gone almost as soon as Clem registers the feeling.
Clem shakes herself. "Yes, right, sorry- what were you saying?"
Nesoi's gaze flicks to the screen and then back to her. "Are you… you're Kesh, right?"
Clem feels herself tense, sweat prickling on the back of her neck. "I… what?"
"I mean, you're from there, you were on that side?"
Clem can feel her relief all the way down to her toes. "I used to be, but I- left."
"To go to Millenium Break?"
"For a time," says Clem, carefully. "I… would prefer not to discuss it."
Nesoi nods, although Clem can feel their unasked questions like a physical presence.
They press their lips together. "I just- why do you let them in, if you were part of Millenium Break?"
They gesture towards the group of Kesh soldiers who have taken to crowding around the bar's windows, so they can catch sight of their fleet spreading out across the ocean. They, at least, are not shy about speaking to reporters, their tales even taller than the ones the reporters were swapping earlier.
"Because I am not a part of it any more," says Clem, "and pushing back against Kesh is far more trouble than it's worth."
She glances at the stream again. Her mother claps politely as the general comes to the end of a paragraph. When she looks back at Nesoi they're looking down, frowning at their feet.
Clem reaches out without thinking, taking their hand as The Blossom has done to her dozens of times, the movement a little clumsy. They look up sharply.
"They won't be around forever," says Clem, "It… The fight always turns, eventually." She can feel her expression twist into something close to a smile. "The Break has something Kesh would never think of."
Nesoi leans closer. "What?"
Clem thinks of Gur's speeches and Sovereign Immunity's attempts to get her to practise and Millie bringing back stray dogs from missions. She thinks of Gucci visiting her in her tiny cell when the others avoided even thinking of her at all.
"The Break truly believes in people's ability to make things on Partizan better," says Clem, "You'd be surprised by how effective that is as a motivational tool."
Nesoi's expression doesn't clear, but they nod, stepping away from her to serve one of the reporters as the next group tumbles in. They don't bring it up again, and for that Clem is as grateful as she is relieved.
True to her word, the fighting does turn, the islands passing through the hands of various Stels. The soldiers of those various Stels continue to come looking in the bar for deserters and whatever criminal of the week they're chasing. Even without Humphrey as a smokescreen, their eyes slide right over her. All her conversations with them are perfunctory, an officer ticking a box so that they can go speak to someone who they’re sure is a much more likely suspect than the blonde behind the bar. Clem still puts on a good show for them, of course. She attended enough dull parties with enough dull Kesh officials to know how to make herself disappear in a conversation with one, how to be charming enough to be forgettable.
She's very careful not to bring attention to Nesoi, or the handful of other runaways and escapees who've ended up in her employ. It's easy enough to find reasons for them to be called to the back rooms or the kitchen whenever there's a chance the trouble that’s associated with each of them might find them.
Clem makes it easy for people to ignore that chance. She convinces bands and singers to perform while they're stuck on the island, filling the bar with music. She converts one of the storage rooms into a private gambling room, which ends up giving the bored soldiers even more of a reason not to raid her bar so often - they don't like the idea of destroying one of their few entertainment sources any more than she does.
Despite how noteworthy it’s become, she doesn't add a name for the bar. She considers it for a while - The Throne, perhaps, or The Panther, but none of them feel right. It all feels too Clementine Kesh, and she's trying not to be, anymore.
In between it all, she keeps helping to slip people off shore, finding ways and means where there should be none, making the tiny cracks in the system just wide enough for someone else to wiggle through. She makes money from it, of course, but it costs her just as much. She makes far more money from the bar. Helping people make it through the cracks is just a hobby, something for her to keep her mind active. After all, it wouldn't do for her to get too attached to it. She was attached to the idea of Millenium Break and that had hardly improved her situation.
Still, she does daydream sometimes about marching back onto Fort Icebreaker, showing them all how wrong they were about her. How they would all fall at her feet, apologies tumbling from their lips which she would, of course, magnanimously accept, returning to her rightful place as leader or, more often than not, returning back to the bar. She’d grown rather attached to the space, after all.
The reality does not quite live up to her imaginings.
She’s in a bad mood when The Blossom asks her to meet him in one of the bar’s back rooms that serves as her office - she woke with a headache that’s bothered her all day, the delivery came late forcing her to try to wrangle the new stock in while also serving at the bar, and to top it all off the rain has made her hair so dreadfully frizzy.
“Clementine,” he says, standing as she enters the room.
“If this is about what I said to that Kesh officer the other day I’m not apologising,” says Clem, before he can continue, “He was drunk and I was right to cut him off.”
“It cannot possibly be causing that much trouble for you, the man is only a captain and he's from, at best, a middling family, he’s not anybody important ,” says Clem, setting down a box of particularly expensive liquor which she intends to use for bribery purposes. “And if he thinks just because he has some kind of title that I will feel compelled to apologise to him, he can, quite frankly, fuck off -”
“ Clementine ,” says The Blossom, an edge of laughter to his voice, “That’s not why I’m here.”
Clem looks up, taking in for the first time the fact The Blossom is not there alone.
“Oh,” says Clem.
Sovereign Immunity blinks at her, looking as surprised to see her as she feels to see him. He looks the same, thinks Clem faintly. Older, but the same. Her hand goes to the back of her head, where the short ends of her hair curl with the heat.
She imagines she looks quite different.
“Wait, no,” says Clem, “Whatever he wants, no, I refuse.”
The Blossom smiles. “Clementine-”
“ You’re the owner of this bar?” says Sovereign Immunity, “ You ?”
Clem straightens her shoulder. “Yes, and if you don’t like it you can leave. Actually, you should leave anyway. I have the right to refuse service to anyone I choose to.”
“Clementine,” tries The Blossom again.
“Whatever it is I won’t do it,” says Clem, and turns away to start putting the liquor bottles in the safe.
“Blossom, what the fuck ?” says Sovereign Immunity.
“You asked me if I knew the owner of the bar who’d been helping people defect to you, and I do,” says The Blossom calmly, “She’s it.”
There’s a certainty to his voice, a tinge of pride, that makes Clem smile before she remembers how mad she is at him. The feeling stays though, caught in her chest as she waits, listening for Sovereign Immunity's response. He's always spoken to others as though she can’t hear him, and she can’t imagine that their time apart has broken him of the habit.
“You expect me to believe,” says Sovereign Immunity, “That the mysterious group behind people’s miraculous escape has been Clementine Kesh ?”
“With help from myself, yes,” says The Blossom, his tone even.
"It's just Clementine , actually," says Clem pointedly, without turning around, "I had the Kesh part taken away from me, if you recall."
Sovereign Immunity ignores her. “That’s- why didn’t you tell me before we got here?”
“I strongly suspected that you wouldn’t believe me,” says The Blossom.
“I’m not sure I believe you now ,” says Sovereign Immunity.
Clem slams the safe shut. “I don’t care what you believe. I want you to get out of my bar .”
The Blossom sighs. “Clementine-”
“This is exactly the attitude that makes me not believe it,” says Sovereign Immunity.
“Oh, of course ,” says Clem, her voice dripping with as much Kesh princess poison as she can manage, “How could I, I'm… how did you put it once? A beautiful moron . How could I possibly move about the world without the benevolent guiding hand of the council of Millenium Break?"
The Blossom blinks, raising his eyebrows at Sovereign Immunity before he turns back to Clem.
“A moment,” says The Blossom.
He hustles Sovereign Immunity outside, stepping back into Clem’s office a moment later.
“I won’t work with him,” says Clem, quickly.
“You didn’t even hear him out,” says The Blossom. He pauses. “I’ve heard their idea, it’s… they could turn things around Clementine.”
Clem swallows. “I don’t care.”
The Blossom smiles at her. His expression is too kind, making her look away, focussing on the corner of her desk.
“I doubt very much that that is true,” says The Blossom. “Not caring is not one of your areas of expertise.”
Clem takes a deep breath in. “Fine. But not- I don’t want to work on it with him, I- Tell them if they want to work with me they should send a better representative.”
The Blossom nods and shepherds Sovereign Immunity out of the bar without giving either of them the opportunity to say goodbye. It's probably for the best, Clem thinks ruefully, even after the time that's passed since their last conversation, she's not sure she could manage a polite farewell.
It's a few days later at closing time when she spots The Blossom again. At first she doesn't think anything of it - she knows he's been romancing one of the singers who's been playing at the bar, and so he's been by for more than just his beer deliveries. It's also a busier night than usual, thanks in part to the Kesh fleet that's currently waiting offshore. It makes it easy to put any wonderings about what Millenium Break's offer might be out of her mind. She guides Kesh officers to the private gambling room, privateers to the opposite end of the bar where they're less likely to start a fight with officers, and does her best to keep the level of mischief and disaster of the rest to a containable degree on her way back to the bar.
"Nice place," says Millie, sliding onto a bar stool in front of her.
Clem drops the glass she was holding. Watered-down Kesh liquor splashes onto her shoes and she sighs, pinching the bridge of her nose for a moment before she signals to Marriannie, a minor Kesh noblewoman's daughter who's been playing at being a runaway. Clem has sympathy for her in that, even if she sometimes does not have the patience for it.
Marriannie makes a startled sound at the smashed glass, her hands fluttering as Clem quickly sweeps up the shards of glass. She pushes the tray of drinks into Marriannie's hands.
"Take these to the back room," says Clem.
Marriannie's expression takes on a nervous edge. She seems to enjoy the danger that can sometimes make its way to the bar but any interaction with Kesh officers makes her dreadfully unsteady, so Clem generally avoids asking it of her. After all, she knows full well that just because one is a daughter of Kesh, that does not mean that one has to have fond memories of it.
"The back room?" says Marriannie hesitantly.
"Nesoi can't do it, there's a Kesh commodore in there tonight and he'll try to make some kind of point if an Apostalisian serves him," says Clem, "Just go in, give them the drinks, and leave. If I don't see you in five minutes, I'll come in there myself." When Marriannie's expression doesn't clear, she adds, "They're not dangerous to you, not really. You've met their type before - at worst they're boring, and you can handle that. You've been to plenty of dinner parties in your life, I'm sure."
She keeps her tone fast and clipped, as though this were just one of the many tedious things one needs to do in running a bar. It has the desired effect - Marriannie relaxes a little and nods, taking the drinks towards the gambling room. She'll be just fine, Clem's sure of it. The commodore being there was more likely to keep the rowdier officers in line, one of the few benefits of having him there at all, even if he did make the bribes more expensive.
She lets out a breath and turns back to Millie, suppressing her reaction to Millie's gaze fixed on her.
"What can I get you?" Clem grits out.
Millie laughs, waving a hand. "Sorry, sorry, just- you know when they told me I kind of didn't believe it but you're really doing the whole thing-"
"If you're not going to buy something then you can leave," snaps Clem.
"Maybe I'm just here to enjoy the music," says Millie.
"Then you can do it from the street," says Clem, "As funny as it seems to all of you I am actually attempting to run a business here."
Millie gestures at the tables behind her. "They're not drinking."
" They didn't kick me off my own ship," says Clem, bitterness leaching through the words despite her best effort.
Millie rolls her eyes. "Fine. Water."
Clem makes an exasperated sound, biting her tongue as Millie grins. She looks Millie over out of the corner of her eye as she pours the water - there's a scar on Millie's face that wasn't there before but otherwise she looks good, lighter somehow than when Clem had last seen her. Being a revolutionary leader suits her.
She sets the glass down in front of Millie a little more forcefully than necessary, water spilling over the sides of the glass. Millie slides her fingers around the glass but doesn't pick it up, looking curiously at her.
"Leap was the first to hear about you, you know," says Millie quietly. "Well, not you you, but… he heard about how someone was out here helping people get through the Stel lines."
Clem folds her arms. "Surprised it was me?"
"Well, yeah," says Millie, "I mean, I gotta be honest, I kind of just assumed you'd gone into hiding with Kesh or something."
"Well I didn't," snaps Clem. "Just because you decided I was of no use to you does not mean that I vanished, and it certainly doesn't mean that I went back to Kesh. "
Millie raises her eyebrows. A few heads turn towards her and Clem makes an effort to lower her voice.
"I don't know why you think you can come here and ask for my help after everything you've done," says Clem.
"You didn't even listen to our idea-" says Millie.
"Because I don't want to hear it. After all, previously you've only been interested in my input when I could provide information on my mother, and that particular line of information has been permanently cut off from me."
"So you're only interested in helping the people you want to help?" Millie makes a face. "Wow you have not changed at all ."
Clem breaks off as she catches sight of Merriannie as she pushes out of the back room, looking a little frazzled but unharmed. She catches Clem's eye and Clem nods to her, tilting her head towards the storeroom so that Marriannie can collect herself under the pretense of busiwork. As long as the girl has space she's fine, really, and it's easy enough for Clem to give her five minutes, even when they're busy. She’s needed the space often enough in her own life to understand.
Clem lets out a breath, trying to gather her previous anger at Millie but it's too dispersed now in all her other worries.
"I just don't know what you want from me , " says Clem, “I can’t take back- well. I can’t undo anything I’ve done. I don’t even know that I would, if I could.”
Something flickers across Millie’s face, too quick for Clem to catch. “You really wouldn’t change anything ?”
Clem sighs. “No. Maybe, I- everything’s so… tangled up. It’s too hard to unpick the good from the bad, let alone figure out what that even is , to you lot.” She huffs a breath. “I don’t know that I ever… I think your end goal was always going to be different to mine.”
Millie frowns, opening her mouth to speak, but Clem cuts her off.
"It's not about the people you want to help," says Clem, "it's about you. Sov- the Farmer didn't even tell me whatever your plan was because he barely even believed that I was the person he was here to see. I'm sure even you can understand why I would find it difficult to want to work with someone like that." She huffs a laugh. "Perhaps you can't. He always found you much easier to like."
"You didn't exactly make it easy," says Millie.
"I didn't know I was expected to," says Clem.
Out of the corner of her eye, someone signals to her for a drink, tapping two fingers to the letters of transit they have face down on the bar in front of them. She's been expecting them, and she needs those letters to help get the couple hiding in Nesoi's room to get them closer to whatever safety they can find. She doesn't have time to dance around with Millie when there's so much real work to be done.
"Tell your council that if they want to work with me they can do so well enough through The Blossom."
Millie stays a few hours more, under the pretext of watching the band. Clem catches sight of her talking to a few people, her posture easy and relaxed in a way that Clem can never get herself to be. The people who frequent her bar like her well enough but speaking to them still doesn't come easy to Clem. Something to keep practising at.
Clem's starting to close up when Millie approaches her again, more cautiously than before. Clem sets the tray she's holding down slightly more roughly than necessary, making the dirty glasses jump on the table.
"I already said everything I have to say to you," says Clem, gathering up the glasses.
Millie holds up both hands. "Yeah, I got that. I just… you're really doing this, huh?"
Clem frowns. "Doing what?"
"This," says Millie gesturing around them.
Clem's frown deepens. "I- yes? What else would I be doing here?"
Millie shrugs. "When the Farmer said you were running a bar I guess I kind of pictured you swanning around like you did on Fort Icebreaker.”
Something twists in Clem's chest and she looks down, rolling the smudged glass between her palms for a moment before she sets it down on the tray with the others. She shrugs, the movement feeling stiff in her shoulders.
Clem swallows. "I suppose I… don't really have time for things like that. It’s- it requires work, to keep it going.”
"I guess so," says Millie. She pauses. “Seems like you’re good at it.”
“Practise,” says Clem.
Millie huffs a laugh. Clem can feel Millie's gaze on her and she keeps her head down, biting the inside of her cheek to stop herself from saying more than she should.
"Well. See you around, I guess." Millie pauses. "As long as we're not banned from the premises."
Clem flicks her eyes to Millie's face before she drops her gaze again. "No, I- I don't ban anyone unless they break something expensive."
"Or if they used to be a Sovereign Immunity," says Millie evenly.
"That's-" Clem lets out a breath. "He can come back. If he likes."
"Huh," says Millie. "I guess I'll pass that on."
Clem hears Millie step away, moving to the door. She looks up in time to see it close behind Millie and her chest aches for a moment, and then she shakes herself and gets back to work.
Luckily, Clem spots the next representative of Millenium Break before they spot her, so she’s at least able to save some dignity this time around. Her knees buckle and she grabs hold of the wall to stop herself from falling, her eyes fixed on the bright red blazer just visible through the blinds of her office doors.
She grabs Nesoi as they come out of the storeroom. Nesoi raises their eyebrows at her, waiting for Clem to gather herself.
"There's a woman in my office," says Clem, her voice far steadier than she feels. "Tell her- please tell her I'll be with her in a moment."
"Okay…" says Nesoi slowly. "Should I- is this something I need a pistol for?"
"No, I doubt it will come to that," says Clem, "but depending on how our conversation goes perhaps you should keep that idea in the front of your mind."
Clem slips upstairs, her heart beating fast as she closes the door behind her. She paces a tight circle of her room.
Clem catches sight of herself in the mirror, smoothing down her hair. She looks down at her clothes and immediately throws open the closest suitcase, searching for something cleaner, something better. She finds a white silk shirt, poorly folded, at the bottom of one the suitcases and slips it on, looking herself over in the mirror.
It doesn't make her look any more like Clementine Kesh than she already did, but perhaps that's for the best. Clementine Kesh was a disaster when it came to having a conversation with Gucci Garantine. Perhaps she will do better now that she is not. She takes a steadying breath in.
She lets out a shaky breath, smoothing down the front of her shirt as she walks downstairs, heading directly to her office. She closes the door behind her. Gucci doesn’t move, only the smallest tilt of her head acknowledging Clem’s arrival.
Clem stays by the door, her hand still on the doorknob behind her. “Of all the places you could come to, why here?”
“I’ve heard that you help people,” says Gucci simply, as though she's speaking to a stranger, “I would like to propose to you a way to help more of them, more… consistently.”
Clem stays still, sure that Gucci must be able to hear her heartbeat across the room.
“Oh no, you must be mistaken,” says Clem, “The people of Fort Icebreaker have made it very clear that I'm of no help to anyone.”
Gucci sighs. “You weren’t.”
“ Excuse me-” splutters Clem.
Gucci turns in her seat to look at Clem. Clem's breath catches in her throat, her hand tightening in the doorknob. For a moment, the space of a breath, Clem forgets why she was ever angry at all. It is so different than seeing Gucci's face on news streams, indescribably so.
“You were a terrible leader,” says Gucci, absolutely breaking the moment, “And a terrible friend.”
“ I was a terrible friend?' says Clem, “You-”
“Yes,” says Gucci, “but that doesn’t mean you weren't a good friend sometimes too, when you wanted to be. And when I wanted you to be, I suppose. You could be a good leader too, under the right circumstances.” She pauses. “You’ve certainly found your niche here.”
“Yes, I- I suppose I have,” says Clem. She takes a deep breath. "I… I have life here Gucci, and it's not… I mean, obviously I know it's not as… prestigious as Fort Icebreaker but… I… I…"
Her hand tightens on the doorknob as a wave of dizziness washes over her, her head spinning with possibilities. They can't possibly want the bar, it's her's and she's worked so hard , really worked this time, and they can't possibly need it for Millenium Break, it's too small a thing, it's too small and it's her's and they can't -
Gucci frowns. "Clem?"
"You can't have the bar," says Clem, "it's mine ."
"I… don't want it?" says Gucci, "It's a lovely establishment I'm sure, but I don't…" Her expression softens. "I didn't come here for that. I came here to speak to you."
"I-" Clem swallows. "Then I think you should leave."
Gucci sighs, standing up to face Clem. The sight of her makes Clem's throat ache.
"If that's what you really want, I'll go," says Gucci, "but I'll be back. This is a conversation I'd like to finish."
Clem huffs a laugh. "I look forward to it."
She steps away from the door so that Gucci can walk past. Clem waits until the door closes, Gucci's steps fading into the noise of the bar, before she lets out a breath. She leans her forehead against the door, her eyes closed. The memory of Gucci is imprinted behind her eyelids, as inescapable as she ever was.
A knock at the door jolts her out of her memories.
"Clem?" says Marriannie, "there's… someone's here to see you?"
Clem tilts her head, catching sight of one of the privateers she knows. Ah yes. Monetary negotiations. This, at least, she can do without returning to the past.
She opens the door, and puts herself back to work.
True to her word, Gucci returns the next day, drinking quietly at the bar when Clem catches sight of her. She's drinking a very expensive wine. House Brightline, it seems, has not suffered any financial difficulties since their entry into the war, or perhaps Gucci is managing herself better than others of their set.
Clem moves to stand next to her, putting herself more than an arm's reach apart from Gucci, to help resist any temptation."I thought I told you to leave."
"You did," says Gucci, "and I told you that I'd be back."
Clem sighs. "Gucci…"
Gucci doesn't move. "I know you want to help people Clem. I know you want to do more."
"You don't know anything about me," says Clem, her old irritation flaring, "We haven't seen each other since- since I left, and even before that we- you barely wanted anything to do with me."
"You didn't seem to want to see me either," says Gucci.
"Well I wasn't supposed to, was I?' snaps Clem, "I was supposed to be leading things not-"
Gucci looks up at her at that, curiosity plain on her face. Clem presses her lips together, letting out a breath through her nose. She's been away too long, forgotten how to hold her tongue around Gucci, not that she was ever particularly good at that.
"Letting myself get distracted," says Clem. She lets out a humourless laugh. "I should have just done that anyway. It's not like things could have gone any worse ."
Gucci pauses, swirling the remains of the wine in her glass. "Perhaps we could have a more private conversation? We could talk about old times."
"I have no desire to reminisce," says Clem.
"Indulge me," says Gucci.
Clem curls her toes in her boots. She wants to, but it's also a terrible idea. It would be far better to turn Gucci away, and keep doing it until it sticks, until she is allowed to return to her small life.
Then again, she's always had rather a fondness for terrible ideas. For good or for ill that's how she’s ended up here in the first place.
"My office," says Clem.
She turns, very deliberately not looking behind her to see if Gucci follows. She keeps walking until she's behind her desk, as far on home turf as she can manage to be.
Gucci stands by the door, letting it swing closed behind her as they consider one another.
"It wasn't all terrible, you know," says Gucci after a moment, "Millenium Break did a lot of good while you were there."
Clem thinks of Cruciat, still in ruins even after all this time, the throne there smashed to pieces, the feeling of absolute powerlessness as she watched the footage of it roll in, knowing and desperately trying not to know. The end result of her playing at having power, of her political machinations, broadcast for all to see.
Clem straightens her shoulders. "It wasn't for me."
Gucci sighs, standing up, one hand still resting on the back of the chair. "Then I suppose this was a wasted exercise."
Clem swallows. "Yes, I'm afraid so."
Gucci steps forward, closer, close enough to touch. Clem steps back, away from the door, swallowing hard as she moves towards her desk, rifling through papers to give her an excuse not to look back up at Gucci.
"Alright," says Gucci, her voice so quiet Clem can barely hear her across the room.
Clem nods, swallowing down her farewells.
"I- A shame this couldn't work out," says Gucci, "I would have- it would have been interesting, to work with this new version of you."
Clem hears the creak of the door as it opens.
Gucci pauses in the doorway.
Clem wets her lips. "Out of curiosity… what was the plan you were sent to propose?"
"I'm afraid I can't fully disclose it unless you agreed to be part of it," says Gucci, "State secrets, you understand."
"Yes, but… broadstokes," says Clem.
Gucci steps back into Clem's office, the door creaking closed behind her. She leans slightly on the back of the chair. Clems gaze flits to Gucci's long fingers wrapped around the wood before she focuses back on her face.
"Broadstokes, well," says Gucci consideringly, "the broadstrokes would be that you specialise in getting people out, and we would like to use those techniques to get people in. "
"Into… Kesh space?" says Clem, "For an attack?"
"I can't say," says Gucci coyly.
They've been apart for a while but Clem remembers that particular tone, even if she last heard it convincing her to sneak out to a college party. She shakes herself out of the memories, letting the possibility curl in her mind. To reappear on Kesh’s radar would be dangerous but there is a certain appeal to it. She has always delighted in pulling off the difficult and unexpected.
"I imagine if Millenium Break is this keen to contact me for this you must be in a rather tight spot," says Clem.
"Not that tight," says Gucci, "Your network is extensive and you come highly recommended. We'd be foolish not to contact you."
Clem presses her lips together, pride flaring in her chest. It's not storming the deck of Fort Icebreaker, but it is something. Better, even, because if she were to return there now they would need her there, would have to listen to her. Not that she could go back. She has little desire, now, to return to the cold deck of Fort Icebreaker.
“So they decided you were next in line to convince me to help with whatever it is that the council of Millenium Break has thought up?”
A smile flickers across Gucci’s face. “I volunteered, actually. After you sent the Farmer away.”
Warmth flares in Clem's chest, hot and bright. It curls through her body, making her flex her fingers where she's been clutching the papers on her desk.
"I'm… I wouldn't have expected you to do that," says Clem.
"I wouldn't have expected to find you here at all," says Gucci. "But I… I must admit, I was glad to hear that it was you. I often wondered where you'd gone."
The warmth in Clem's chest pushes upwards and she smiles. She's too out of practice at hiding it, so she doesn't bother trying.
Gucci smiles back, considering her for a long moment. "What is the name of this place anyway? There's no sign out the front. Not like you to leave something without your mark."
"I… thought it best to leave it without," says Clem. "That people know where and what it is seems to work well enough without me- without a name for it."
Gucci nods. Clem feels like Gucci's gaze on her is a physical thing, sliding along her skin, a long-forgotten sensation. It's almost tortuous. She's missed it.
She steels herself, stepping out from behind the desk, her heart hammering in her chest as though she is approaching battle and not the solitary figure of Gucci Garantine.
“I won’t work with Sovereign,” says Clem quickly, “Or Gur Sevraq.”
Gucci pauses. “Would you work with me?”
“I…” Clem swallows. “I don’t know. I don’t have a good track record of being able to work with people associated with Millenium Break.”
“I think your record is a little more mixed than you think,” says Gucci. She pauses, taking a breath. “I… I wished that you’d stayed, sometimes.”
“I wasn’t allowed to,” says Clem.
“I know,” says Gucci, “but I missed you all the same.”
“You’re a terrible liar Gucci,” says Clem, her voice rough around her tight throat, “nobody thinks that about Clementine Kesh.”
“I do,” says Gucci, taking a step forward, “Divines help me, I do.”
She reaches out, taking Clem’s hands in her own. Clems eyes prickle and she looks down at Gucci’s hands on her’s, hands that she used to know as well as her own. It's hard to find her voice again, and the fact that Gucci is clearly giving her the time to do so makes it even harder. The ache in her throat spreads to her chest, making it difficult to find her voice.
“Well,” says Clem quietly, “Well I suppose that’s… this has been a surprise for both of us.”
Gucci lets out a soft laugh. “I should have expected it. You always were surprising me.”
Clem takes a breath, looking up at Gucci, studying the familiar planes of her face. She has missed her, truly. For all the hurts that she blames Gucci for, it's too hard to keep a hold of them with Gucci in front of her again. The idea that Gucci has felt the same, has wondered about Clem maybe even as often as Clem has wondered about her makes something clench in Clem’s chest. It’s such a small thing, really, like everything in Clem’s life now, and yet it makes her feel as if she was bursting with it.
“I suppose it… it would be nice to work together,” says Clem, “with you, I mean.”
“I’d like that.” She squeezes Clem’s hands. “I look forward to working together.”
Gucci's hands in her's feel like pushing a boat off shore with only the starlight to guide her way - she doesn't yet know that they will reach their destination, but she's hopeful of the possibility.
Clem smiles. Gucci smiles back.