"We was arrested," Zaire confirmed, arms wrapping gently around the toddler as she leaned back against his bare chest and rubbed at tired eyes. "Myself an' Jimmy, 'is brother Chaz." Had Brandy met Chaz yet? Zaire wasn't sure, since the carpenter's mate rarely joined them at the brothels where they often met up. "The Duchess - that bitch - meant to 'ang us, alright. She wanted t' make a show'uv it by findin' the rest'uv the crew and 'anging as many'uv us as possible." That wasn't the interesting part of the story though, not really, and it wasn't the part that he wanted to get off his chest.
"She 'as a vampire bodyguard, Brandy-love," he said, meeting her eyes. "Southern born; mere slip'uv a thing, he was." He continued, telling her how Chaz had been the first taken and interrogated, and then Jimmy the next night, and how Zaire hadn't understood what she was doing until it was his turn. "She'd used the vampire t' get my men to tell 'er where the Song was anchored and by t' time it was my turn, she'd taken the ship, killed ten'uv my crew, an' forced a surrender. It was personal. We'd taken a prize that'd meant the death'uv someone close to 'er."
"Shiiit," Brandy cursed, listening at first in shock but that expression melted into sympathy at the mention of his lost men. The faces of the crew she'd met sprang to mind - the pretty woman and tattooed guy from the tournament, Gunther… but instead of asking, Brandy instead just reached out to give the captain's hand a gentle squeeze and continued to listen.
Zaire's eyes drifted out over the water, lingering on Bahari who had gotten distracted by a seashell and abandoned her task of crab fishing. "So I did what I 'ad to t' save my crew. She knew the location of a prize that no man had yet been able to claim, a prize guarded by a dragon, an' I made a deal t' recover it." He touched the side of his neck opposite the mess the vampire in the North had made, where instead two small incisions had healed, neatly hidden in the dual colors and speckled patterns of his skin. "An' allowed the vampire t'ave his fill."
"Again? Oh god, that su…." Brandy stopped short of making an entirely inappropriate pun and, with an apologetic wince, instead shifted to sit up on her knees to look closer at Zaire's neck, her thumb running over the small, almost surgical incision. On one side, a nasty scar - the other, a neat one, imperceptible if you hadn't known what to look for. How could the same type of creature be responsible for both? She didn't know much about the Duchess' lackey, but they did know that the vampire in the North was new… so there was an obvious answer here: "This one's gotta be old as fucking dirt."
With a sigh, Brandy nodded as she (incorrectly) assumed the end of the story. "So that's when you escaped? That's smart, Z. Make her think you're doing her a favor and then make a break for it. The old 'got an inch, take a mile'...." With a smile, she added, and a playful touch of Dira's cheek, "Where I'm from, we say if you give a mouse a biscuit."
Zaire held still and allowed Brandy to examine the two small scars on his neck, watching her face from the corner of his eye. There was sympathy in her eyes and it was that small hint of obvious understanding that he'd been seeking. Brandy witnessed what happened in the North and she'd know how much it had cost him to allow it to happen again.
"Nah, lass," he said, shaking his head. "We found that dragon, we did." And perhaps coincidentally, Dira chose that moment to shift around in his lap a little so she could close her hand around the key hanging around his neck. The key that he'd found himself oddly drawn to in the sea dragon's lair, out of all of the priceless treasures surrounding them. "And we slayed it, took it's horde, and brought it back t' the Duchess jus' like I swore we would." It had been a gamble but he'd read Francesca right. She hadn't been interested in upholding the King's laws but she had been interested in doing business.
"If we'd've taken our freedom and run, she'd never'uv stopped huntin' us. She'd'uv torn the West apart." He nodded toward the water again, "Maybe even found this place." The smile he fixed on her then was undeniably cocksure as he explained further, "My crew is wanted all over Eventyr, love, but 'ere in the West, we operate with a bit more freedom - and now I've ensured we got even more."
"You're shitting me," Brandy said, incredulous at first and then simply dumbfounded as she shook her head and her eyes grew distant, unfocused, as she tried to picture what slaying a dragon would entail. Bits of movies like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter jumped into her mind, creatures the size of small planes with fire breath and razor tails, and quickly she shook them from her head - they were no more a reference for Eventyrian dragons than Twilight had been for the vampires she'd seen in the North.
"So, what, you got arrested and almost hanged with your entire crew, but you more or less came out ahead? You are on another level, Captain," Brandy concluded. But as much as she wanted to kick back and hear the story in full, she couldn't help but remember that, miraculous survival aside, they hadn't exactly been on the best terms before - and the fact that his kids were here probably meant his wife wasn't far, and what even were the implications of that?
As if to test the waters, she asked, "So, did you save a dragon scale for me?"
Zaire chuckled, absently smoothing his hand up and down Dira's back as the toddler's eyes drifted shut. He did have a way of clawing himself and his crew out of what seemed to be impossible situations, didn't he? In fact, all his life he'd been dodging death in the most miraculous of ways--
But he stopped that thought before it was even fully formed, unwilling to dwell on it and, perhaps, use up the luck that had brought him this far . . .
And her question proved a suitable distraction, as well, prompting his eyes to her face as he tried to read the intention behind the words. He was always bringing gifts and trinkets home for his wife and kids and he'd be lying if he hadn't considered grabbing something for Brandy when they were digging through the piles of treasure in the dragon's lair. But he and Brandy hadn't been talking then.
"Brandy-love," he started, "I miss ya, I do, but I need ya t'understand. I 'ave two lives that I lead." He nodded toward the water, "What 'appens out there stays separate from 'ere. This is what I come back to after a hunt, love." He shook his head, "The fightin', the killin' . . ." He settled his eyes on her in a knowing look, "The fuckin'. Ain't none'uv it mix 'ere. Elle, she ain't stupid, but she ain't want t' 'ear it, either."
An old sitcom episode played out in Brandy's mind. Short, balding, shouting George Costanza explaining: If Relationship George walks through this door, he will Kill Independent George...! So a more playful smile than Brandy expected played across her lips, with the ghost of a laugh behind them as she finished the quote, "A Zaire divided against himself cannot stand?" Cupping his speckled cheeks in each hand, Brandy laughed and assured him, "I get it."
Brandy shifted, letting her weight settle into the sand at the pirate captain's side as she considered her words. "But your argument only holds if we're just fucking." The baby was asleep so Brandy didn't worry about her gestures as she pointed, "If you want to separate what happens down there," she pointed, "from up here," finger tapping his chest, above his heart, "then we don't have a problem. I'll fuck you all day long," she finished with a smirk.
But it wasn't that easy, and so she turned away, picking up a fistful of sand and letting it fall through her fingers. "But the thing is - the same day you told me I wasn't just a fuck, you got touchy about your wife…"
"It must be hard enough to try, on any given day, to be two different men: husband or captain." Looking back, Brandy felt her lips purse as her jaw clenched, betraying her discomfort, but she pressed on. There was a sort of resignation in her voice, and as she tried to shrug it off, she fell back to her elbows in the sand. The sunshine was hot on her neck, sand warm on her elbows, and she knew she would want to swim soon. "If I make you feel like you now need to be three? I'm not surprised you pushed me away. That's too fucking much."
What happened 'down there' and what happened in his heart were two completely separate things. Sex was just sex and he could enjoy the act with any woman who'd caught his attention, or any woman who was willing. It was enjoyable and certainly one of his favorite pastimes, but his relationship with Eloise wasn't built on or around it - it was built on years of trust and understanding, an intrinsic knowledge of what the other needed at any given time, shared sorrows and joys, a love and devotion toward the life they'd built with each other . . .
And no woman, not even Brandy, could fill Eloise's place in his life.
But her words made him think that just maybe he was understanding what she was saying. He'd never felt guilty for having a sexual relationship with Brandy and he'd never felt guilty for being fond of her in the way he was, but he had been hesitant to talk about Eloise and his life with her. Brandy had misinterpreted his words and reaction and that had led to so much confusion between the two of them. Confusion that he needed to try to clear up.
"Brandy," he started, touching the back of her hand with his fingertips. "Eloise is my wife, the mother of my children - all'uv 'em - but she's never seen the things I'm capable'uv. She knows, but she ain't never seen me kill, never seen me maim; she ain't never seen the side'uv myself that my crew sees - that you've seen. 'Cause'uv that, Eloise keeps me from the drop-off."
It would be so easy to lose himself in the violence, like so many other pirates did. Alby and Chione were willing and able to do terrible things while in each other's company, but oddly enough, they also provided for each other what Eloise and the children did for Zaire. Yes, they fed the violence when it was needed and also helped each other walk back from the brink . . .
But Zaire knew himself. If he lost this paradise and the people who made it such, he'd lose every bit of his soul along with it and then he truly would become Scourge of the West - a man with nothing left to lose and nothing left to fight for except his own powerful greed. His conscience would shrivel and dry and die, like a starfish left in the hot sun.
His tone softened as he continued, "I think'uv ya as a dear friend, Brandy-love, but I don't love ya, lass."
Brandy listened with open ears, trying to wrap her head around what Zaire expressed and to be cognizant of their huge cultural divide. His wife was a kind of anchor, she surmised, an escape from the harsh realities he had to deal with on a regular basis. And not just killing sailors taking over a ship, but sometimes offering your neck to a vampire…
As a professional foodie, whose rock bottom involved sleeping on her father's couch, Brandy couldn't totally understand, but she watched Zaire's face as he spoke, and the emotion she saw cast over his face caught her attention. It served to teach her that she had a lot more listening to do, and so she just nodded in quiet acknowledgement.
It was never fun to hear that your lover didn't love you… but Brandy supposed that it was those words - love, friend - getting in the way. "I'm down with being ---," Brandy corrected herself with a small smile and a nod, "I am glad to be a dear friend."
She made sure that there was no transition, because "but" or "so" or "and" did not do the job. There was no connection; his feeling were his, and hers were her own, and the best they could do was understand and appreciate the other's. So, Brandy tried.
"I don't want to be your wife. I don't want to have your children." A joking smile, "They're cute as all get out without me." Looking at her hands where her fingers had seized a seashell, Brandy fought back the urge to say ...but I do love you. Her thumb moved slowly over its bumps, and she tried to be more specific. "When I cook a new meal, I want you to eat it. When I hear a song that gets my heart beating, I want to dance with you." Venturing to be a little more vulnerable than she usually allowed, Brandy concluded, "When I feel afraid, I wish you were closer..."
She shrugged. "Maybe that's love. Maybe it's friendship. Maybe it's something else entirely. I don't think we need to have a word to make it meaningful."
When Brandy turned her attention to the seashell in her hand, Zaire instead kept his gaze on her profile. It was happening slowly, this understanding between them, but it was happening and that was the important thing. So while Brandy listened and absorbed, Zaire offered her the same kindness in return and it was easy enough to glean the meaning behind her examples - she wanted to spend time with him and that was likely why the fairy circles continued to spit her out near him. Well, that was easy enough to do, right? After all, he wanted to spend time with her, as well, but he could hardly have her showing up on his beach any time he was home . . .
But it was her admittance of wanting him near when she was afraid that had his lips parting, and her following words that had his eyes drifting away from her again. It was friendship, he silently insisted, but also maybe a different kind of love than the one he shared with Eloise and that was fine, right?
With a bit of careful maneuvering, Zaire settled the sleeping Dira in the sand beside them, using a piece of driftwood to quickly fashion a sunshade of sorts out of a light woven blanket. When she stirred, he rubbed her belly until she stuffed a thumb in her mouth and settled back into sleep.
Then he was able to turn to Brandy and give her his full attention, his dark eyes meeting the lovely blue of her own. "Brandy-love," he started, taking her hand in his. "I want t'spend time with ya too." If she meant nothing to him then she wouldn't have distracted him from his escape at the tournament in the East, she wouldn't have occupied his thoughts when they were apart and he wouldn't certainly wouldn't have allowed her here, on the Island.
"You're important t'me and I want our friendship to keep on." He reached up and brushed her hair back, tucking a bright lock behind her ear, "And it sounds as if ya do too, so there ain't no reason not to, yeah?" He gave a quick shake of his head, "We ain't need a word t' make it so." Why try to define what they had? Why try to fit their unique relationship into a box when there wasn't actually a box to fit it?
Brandy smiled. She let the expression linger on her face while Zaire put his baby daughter to sleep, watching with admiration the ease with which he sheltered her from the sun and comforted her until she drifted off. It was definitely hard to imagine the same hands capable of maiming - but not impossible. People were multidimensional, and this was a reminder not to forget that the guy in her bed was still sometimes a murderer.
But soon, that sincere smile, that happy expression, that didn't last long. Within moments, amusement twisted its authenticity. "Gotta be careful, Z," Brandy said. His words weren't exactly out of a romantic comedy, but that was never what she wanted. All that shit was fake. Instead, Brandy craved clarity, and, having that now lifted such a weight from her shoulders and made her joke resonate as just that. "All this talk about spending time and being important and the next thing you know, you'll be committing infidelity."
Brandy stood up and said decisively. "I promise I'll go home after, but I did not come this far to not go swimming." Her hands began exploring her new outfit for anything she could discard, and soon her corset fell into the sand. Apparently the whole skirt was attached, but she could roll and tuck it up so her feet would be free. Boots were easy work to unlace. Sand in her toes felt like heaven, and so she did not hesitate to send a spray of it toward the pirate captain as she took off for the waves. "It's freezing at home right now!"