‘Can I talk you for a second?’
‘Talk you?’ Fjord repeats, looking up with a teasing grin from polishing his shield. The expression falls away when he sees the serious—and nervous—look Beau levels his way. A nervous Beau makes a nervous Fjord; he stands, green energy sparking around his fingers as he scans the clearing. He can’t see anything that might’ve worried her. ‘Yeah. Yeah, of course. Here? Or do you wanna…’
‘No, no, not here. Um. Yeah, okay, follow me.’
Beau glances around the clearing. Her eyes rest a moment too long on the others; there’s something in the look she gives them that has Fjord on edge, confused, but as soon as the feeling tickles at his brain, it’s gone again and he can’t quite grasp what it was.
She tilts her head toward a nearby set of trees—the spreading vines wrap tight around the trunks and hang from the branches making a decent curtain to hide them and their conversation, but they won’t be too far if something comes up.
Fjord nods, gestures for her to go first. He follows where she leads. He thinks he always will.
She brushes aside the hanging vines and they stand there. They stand there for a good long while. Finally, when Beau doesn’t speak, Fjord broaches the silence.
Lightning blue eyes flash to him. For a moment, he thinks she’s mad at him—she’s scowling and tense, arms folded—but then she breathes out and the electric charge surrounding her is gone.
It feels strange; he hadn’t noticed when that tension had begun but now that she has let it go…he thinks it might’ve been there for a while. It’s nothing like her usual energy, always watchful but easy about it. It’s as though that watchful energy had, bit by bit, been needled so many times that she has been set completely on edge and not let down from that edge, unable to slow down or stop looking. Fjord wants to kick himself for not realising it sooner. But he can’t, because she has set that watchful burden down now for the first time in—if he had to guess—a week. She has set it down at his feet, is trusting him to take it from her and listen and watch her back. The trust makes his heart clench cold and small in his chest, an answering call somewhere deep in his gut that says, if it comes to it, Fjord will draw on some pretty terrible powers to protect this girl, his best friend.
He recognises the look now. Fjord has seen all of his friends charmed before, made to see them all as enemies, and this is like but unlike that. Something he has seen before, though. It is less striking than it had been outside of the hag’s hut but he can see it in her eyes—she wants to bolt. Wants to put distance between everyone and her. It’s only in her eyes, though. She’s so casual with it all, posture relaxed, almost cocky. He would kick himself if he could reach—who’s the fucking pro at disguises? Guess that doesn’t extend to recognising one.
Beau rubs a hand over her weary face. ‘Everything’s fucked,’ she sighs.
‘Not everything. We still have you.’ Fjord isn’t as practised at pushing true emotion into his voice as he is at controlling it, but he thinks he succeeds at sounding thankful, and pleased, and relieved, and maybe a little sad because Beau’s head jerks up so she can look at him and then away, rubbing at the back of her neck.
‘Yeah. Uh. Yep.’
‘Do we need to have this conversation again?’
‘Please don’t,’ Beau bites out.
Ford nearly laughs but there’s a new desperation in her voice he can’t place. ‘Beau?’
She shakes her head. Presses her folded arms tighter to her chest. ‘Look, there’s - something I wanted to talk to you about. And it’s -‘ Her forehead crumples into a frown she directs down at the jungle floor. Kicks her foot, sending a curious beetle that was crawling over her booted toe somewhere deeper into the underbrush. ‘It might…change some stuff.’ Her face is smooth, other than that hint of a frown, and he can’t pick what she means from it. ‘About me. And you.’
Fjord has no idea what that could mean. He goes about asking in the most subtle manner he can. ‘What does that mean? What do you mean?’
‘It’s - I appreciate,’ she says, picking her words carefully, ‘what you said to me. Yesterday.’
What he said? ‘Shit, Beau - about caring about you?’ Now it’s Fjord’s turn to rub at his eyes. Rage burns between his shoulders, hot across his skin; it’s an old familiar friend, of the type that should’ve been left in the past long ago, and he waits for it to pass before he says, tone still a little heated, ‘It’s not something for you to appreci—’ His tusk bites into his upper lip when he presses his lips flat. He breathes in. Lets it out. More gently, he says, ‘It’s the truth, Beau.’
‘I know, I know,’ she’s quick to assure him. He’s assured for less than a second because she continues with, ‘I know you think that. But-‘
Fjord sets his hands on her shoulders. Pulls her around to face him dead on. ‘How can I say it so you get it? I love you, Beau. You’re my best friend - nothing could change that. Yeah, you’re a shit kicker and you’re smarter than all of us, especially with this.’ He flicks the headband, ignores her petulant ow. ‘But even if you were dumb as a brick and couldn’t punch for shit—you’re still our Beau.’
‘You don’t know that,’ she points out, which he’s relieved to hear sounds more amused than anything. ‘It’s literally impossible to know that. If I couldn’t punch people, I wouldn’t be me.’
‘You do like to punch,’ Fjord agrees, allowing the sidestep, the distraction. ‘You’re good at it.’
‘Great at it, thanks.’
They share a grin. Fjord hopes that’s the end of it—that she needed reassurance and he is happy, more than happy, to provide it. But then Beau’s smile slips, first from one side of her lips and then the other before it drains right off her face. She forces herself to look him in the eye and hold herself steady.
‘I have to tell you something,’ she says, ‘And it - I’m never gonna do anything about it but it might change things. It will change things. And,’
‘It’s something I won’t like?’ Beau just looks at him, which is a yes. ‘If you’re never going to do anything about it, why tell me? Are you trying to make me hate you or something?’
Something flickers in Beau’s eyes. Her voice is abruptly hoarse when she speaks. ‘I don’t want you to hate me. That - would suck. But I gotta tell you now because I - already told someone else and if it comes out… If it comes outta the blue, I don’t want you blindsided by it and hating me even more.’ Her voice cracks, quavers the smallest bit. Swallowing hard, Beau turns her head away, clears her throat.
He stares down at her, confused. His fingers squeeze onto her shoulders out of instinct; she’s shivering, he thinks. No—she’s shaking with nerves.
‘Okay,’ he says.
When Beau looks up at him, eyes wet but not yet overflowing, face set in determination that can’t quite cover fear, Fjord feels something in him settle. He knows, even if she doesn’t, that there is nothing she could say now that could break this. Nothing that could make him not love her. Fjord imagines himself a deep ocean, the one that comes to him when he meditates—Uk’otoa’s gifts sunken deep into its far reaches, the Wildmother’s gifts of the sky and sea and sunlight, and within that ocean there are boundless stretches that is all him, all Fjord, and the tides that pull him pull in one direction—toward Beau, toward his friends, toward this weird little family they have made. He’s never said anything like that before so there’s no reason Beau should know that, but he knows now.
‘Tell me,’ he says, and he fixes his attention on her, meeting her eyes with all the calm certainty of a tranquil sea.
Beau opens her mouth. Her nose is going red with the effort of not crying. She closes her mouth. Makes a sound in the back of her throat like she’s clearing it.
‘I - didn’t mean to. I need you to know that, I didn’t mean to, it wasn’t supposed to happen, I didn’t intend for—‘ She stops when he rubs his hand soothingly over her shoulder, cups the back of her head.
‘You’re okay. Breathe, Beau.’
She nods hurriedly. Draws in a steadying breath. ‘I like Jester,’ Beau tells him, and for all that she is technically meeting his eyes, she’s entirely checked out, sunken so far back behind her walls that fjord can’t hardly see her. ‘I like her a lot, and I’m never gonna do anything about it, I swear, and I’m not gonna tell her, not if I can help it, but Nott knows and—‘
‘And she runs her mouth on a good day, let alone when she’s halfway through withdrawals?’
‘Yeah.’ There’s a flicker of normal Beau, cautious, when he doesn’t immediately denounce her. He doesn’t know if he could denounce her, not when he knows how that feels. If anything, if anything, could it just be another thing they share? ‘She hasn’t said anything about it yet, so I’m hoping—‘ She cuts herself off when Fjord frowns.
‘Hold on.’ He tries to temper his tone, he really does, but a lash of sharpness still makes it in there. Beau curls deeper into herself, almost pulls out of his grip. ‘You thought I would hate you for that?’
‘No, it’s not!’
‘Yeah, Beau, it is.’ He gives her a gentle shake, like he can somehow get her brain to sit right and understand what he is saying. ‘How the hell could I hate you for—you don’t—that’s mad, Beau! You can’t pick and choose who you fall for, and if it’s anyone’s fault, let’s be real here, this is Jester’s fault for being—what did Vendetta call her?’
Beau snorts. ‘Aggressively likeable.’
‘Aggressively likeable,’ Fjord repeats, nodding. ‘That’s our girl.’ He waits a moment, turning over reassurances and questions in his head; he can admit that he doesn’t really know what to say so he just goes with his instincts, which have only failed him a few times, and pulls Beau in for a hug.
Her folded arms are trapped between them when he does. Fjord feels her tense even more before suddenly she’s wriggling in the cradle of his arms and freeing her hands; he’s worried that she’s going to run until she’s not, because she is wrapping her arms tight around him the very next moment, tight as she can. He groans dramatically at the pressure, grins when she laughs.
‘So,’ she says, quiet, soft, nervous. Not like his Beau at all. ‘You - don’t hate me?’
Fjord’s arms tighten around her. ‘No.’ The word is firm. Certain. He feels it hit and stun her, feels her go lax against him. ‘Your parents really fucked you up, huh?’
Beau snorts wet against his shoulder. ‘A bit. I had a hand in it too.’
‘No, I don’t think you did,’ he tells her thoughtfully.
‘You don’t know—‘
‘I’ve never seen you look the way you did when you told us about the winery,’ he continues, speaking over her. Beau falls quiet. ‘I didn’t—I actually think it might’ve been the first time you’ve admitted to wanting something.’
‘You make me sound like a freak,’ she grumbles.
‘Not a freak. Well. A bit of a freak,’ he amends, and is pleased to see a hint of a smile on her face when he peeks down at her. ‘It’s a shitty kind of parent who makes a kid feel like they’re not allowed to want anything.’
‘I could want things,’ Beau snaps. Fjord waits. Then, ‘It just…had to be the same as what he wanted.’
‘Mhm. I hate your dad.’
Beau’s fingers drum restlessly against the leather of his chest piece. ‘He’s—‘
‘Say complicated again. I dare you.’ Beau stays silent. ‘You don’t have to hate him. Not entirely. You don’t have to pick one way or the other. But I can hate him for you. If you want.’
Beau leans heavier still into him. He wonders at it—this is the longest they’ve ever hugged before, the longest he’s had Beau stand still before, and he’s surprised to realise that she’s short. She fits snug under his chin, which he rests atop her head.
‘Jes—she wants me to forgive him. Or try to. She thinks he loves me.’
‘Reckon that had any hand in your whole spiral? Wanting to leave us?’ He regrets the snide tone when it makes Beau pull away. She doesn’t fold into herself again—looks a little more even keel—but she’s closed off somewhat.
‘I said I’m sorry.’
‘You don’t—Beau,’ he sighs. ‘You don’t have to be sorry. I’m not gonna stand here and say I understand but…we just wanna know you’re not gonna offer that again. Or walk away next time we zip to Zadash.’
‘Thought you might like it.’ Beau grins. She doesn’t speak though, and she must think he has a very short attention span to have forgotten his own question so quickly. Fjord scratches at his growing beard. Wonders how to draw the truth out of her before he realises what she’s given him. ‘Y’know, Jester would be really upset if you just ran off.’ Fjord grins broadly at the look of outrage that crosses Beau’s face.
‘No! No, absolutely not! I didn’t tell you this so that you could use it against me—‘
‘Nah, just so I’d hate you and give you a reason to run, right?’ That had clicked, finally. He knows he’s right when shame engulfs Beau’s expression.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says again.
He can only sigh. ‘Do you even know what you’re apologising for?’ Beau hesitates. Fjord shakes his head. ‘Whatever it is…just make sure it isn’t - that you’re not apologising for being you,’ he says and prods a finger against her chest. ‘I spent months pretending to be someone else, and years before that hating who I was, so…I get what you’re feeling. Kinda. I was shit scared giving up my powers because I’d let them be who I was instead of something that I used.’ Beau nods reassuringly and Fjord feels a flicker of fond exasperation. Smiles down at her. ‘I don’t need to be supported, Beau, I’m supporting you.’
‘You were fuckin’ - brave and awesome, okay? I can support that. Shut up.’
He rolls his eyes. When he’s done, he frowns down at the ground, the knotted roots and vines.
‘Sacrificing yourself … isn’t your power. It’s not what we need from you, like the snea snakes power wasn’t — what I am, all that I am. We want you, Beau.’
He knows it’s not over, not yet fully understood, but he counts it as a success when Beau nods slowly. She looks thoughtful, which is better than despair. Far better.
‘Did you really think I’d hate you?’
Beau’s eyes drop and she shrugs, looking every inch an awkward teen. He wonders idly how old she actually is—older than twenty, maybe mid-twenties? She mutters something he doesn’t catch.
‘How do you feel?’ she snaps. A little louder and crankier than intended, obviously, because she winces.
‘About—‘ He gestures to her and then back toward the camp. Beau nods. Fjord tucks his thumbs onto his belt, shifts his weight as he thinks, knowing Beau won’t be reassured by a half-answer. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Things are complicated.’
She laughs. ‘Tell me about it.’
‘There’s so much that I still don’t know. About me. About what the hell we’re doing. About my powers and whether when we get to the ocean Uk’otoa is going to drown me,’ he says, which earns him a long, thoughtful look in return. He hadn’t meant to say that but he’s glad that it was Beau he said it to, instead of anyone else. She’s steady, usually, and has his back.
‘I’m a good swimmer,’ she says.
‘You’ll pull me back on the boat if he does?’
‘On the quick, Captain.’
They trade smiles. Fjord continues.
‘I don’t know how much space there is in that for romance. And - and I like Jester, I really do. It’s just… Sometimes I think—and this is not her fault because I pretended to be someone else for months—but I don’t think she sees me all the time. She can’t,’ he tells Beau. ‘I don’t even know who I am, so how could she?’ Beau nods. She doesn’t try to convince him or reassure him, just puts a hand on his arm. ‘Hey, can I ask you something? You can say no.’ He waits for her to nod, then, ‘When did you know? That you liked her?’
For a moment, he thinks she’s not going to answer. But then the words start, haltingly at first before he recognises the softness in her tone and everything comes a little easier. That’s the Jester of it all, he knows. It’s easy to love her.
‘It’s - been a bit. A long while, I guess. Not from the start. She just – she’s always been funny and fun and so nice, y’know?’ He nods. He does know. ‘I never really liked that in most people because it always seemed so fake but with her… Things started getting hard and I dunno, I was waiting for it to stop. Getting ready to protect her because she’s Jester but she—she’s strong. Really strong. And kind? And even though we kept seeing all this awful shit, she kept being kind and it’s weird in a totally Jester way. It’s amazing? And I don’t know when it happened but one day I just realised I’d do a lot to make sure she never feels like that effort was wasted and maybe help her out and—yeah. I’m not—it’s not something I’m gonna do anything about,’ she is quick to assure him again. ‘I’m not gonna tell her or anything, it’s just a crush,’ Beau lies, ‘but it’s there.’
Fjord thinks—he doesn’t know, he never seems to know anything for certain anymore, the world so much more complex than he had ever given it credit for, but he thinks—that there is something deeply sad about the idea that Beau won’t tell Jester. There’s a hurt in his chest at the idea of Jester being with Beau, but it doesn’t hurt as bad as he thought it might. Whether that’s because he loves Beau too, or because he doesn’t love Jester as much as he thought, or because he knows how good Beau is and how well she would love Jester and how well Jester would love Beau if she were given the chance… He doesn’t know about any of that. But when he thinks on it a second more, a minute more, he can see it. The possibilities. And the sadness tugs at him again, knowing that Beau won’t even allow herself to want it.
‘I get it,’ is all he says, because they’ve talked about enough heavy shit already. ‘Kinda makes you wonder what’s wrong with everyone when they’re not head over heels for her, right?’
Beau snorts. Her eyes brighten with obvious surprise and a hesitant kind of happiness. ‘Yeah,’ she agrees, and when Fjord doesn’t react poorly to it, to yet another acknowledgement of how she feels, she relaxes into it. Shoulders dropping from where they’ve been lifted around her ears the entire time. ‘Yeah.’