Topics

BP/JP: Friends with Benefits #Brandy #zaire


Rachel
 

Who: Brandy, Zaire, various NPCs

When: August 871 RoK

Where: Lake City


With a wide hat shadowing his face and a tattered cloak around his shoulders, a bottle of rum tucked against his side, no one paid much attention to the man sitting just inside the mouth of the narrow alley between the tavern and the tanner. To anyone curious enough to glance his way, he was just another old drunk, half passed out and hoping for a handout, and Einar Larsen played that image to his benefit.


His eyes drifted closed and ears that were still sharp despite his age tuned in to the snippets of conversation from people passing by: two working girls complaining about their madam skimming from the till, a young mother scolding her son for stealing a biscuit from a baker's cart the next street over . . .


As interesting as that all was though, what Larsen was really waiting for - here in the mud at sundown - were the soldiers who would inevitably begin trickling into the bar and, hopefully, some overheard hints of when his Captain and crewmates were to be hanged. Chaz and Jimmy were like sons to the old sailor and while the crew of the Siren's Song may not have been able to do anything to spring the three from the Duchess' dungeons, Larsen would be damned if he wouldn't be right there to bear witness to their executions.


His eyes opened as footsteps sounded from further down the alleyway and Einar's hand strayed toward the dagger at his waist but all he saw was a red-haired tavern wench throwing kitchen scraps out. There was something familiar about her though, something that had him leaning forward to peer at her a little closer . . .


The ginger barmaid paused at the door, setting her now-empty bucket up on her ample hip, as the drunkard's movement caught her attention. She tilted her head curiously, finding the face somehow familiar. it took her a moment to place him, but when she did, concern pinched her brows. Usually, she found Zaire's crew inside the bar. Was he spying, perhaps? On what?


Brandy had only arrived midday to the beautiful city that reminded her of Venice - Lake City, the locals told her. The abundance of fresh seafood had her finding her way into the kitchen instead of the front of the house, but she was fairly certain she would have heard about the Siren's Song if they were in town. She remembered Jimmy's loud announcements well! The last time she'd seen Zaire, he had seemed to be on the low and in a hurry...


Brandy made sure the door was closed behind her, and the bucket right in front of it that would cause anyone who came through to stumble, then made her way over. Brandy placed one booted foot up on the wall behind her as she leaned and greeted, "What's good, friend?"


As the redhead's eyes lit with recognition, any doubt in Larsen's mind quickly faded. This was, indeed, the girl that their Captain had taken a fancy to; the one likely named after her father's favorite drink. The old carpenter had heard from Alby and Chionne that they'd run into her a few months back when they'd caught up with that handsy bastard, Lambert. They'd said the Captain had even taken a moment to stop and have a drink with her after the grisly deed had been done . . .


"Ain't nuthin' good," Larsen answered honestly, but quietly, drawing one knee up to prop an elbow on. How much did she know? Enough that she'd sent Gunther to crew with them, enough that she'd helped Visser and Abadi fight off those vamps up North. Enough that he could give her the bad news.


"Any day now three'uv our crew'll be swingin' over the canals." He nodded toward her, "Our Cap'n among'um."


"You're shitting me," Brandy exclaimed, words sharp but volume low. Her eyes squeezed shut as her brain tried to reject the information, but the unpleasant image the pirate painted was too vivid and all she saw in the blackness of her eyelids was a noose around Zaire's speckled throat, the thick rope against the vampire's scar…


She shook the thought from her mind. No - it wasn't possible, she tried to rationalize. Zaire had chopped off a vampire's head with that toothpick sword of his. He hadn't just gotten arrested. Most times she'd seen him, he'd been living it up without much concern for who saw him - why had the authorities decided to target him all of the sudden? Was that why he'd been so secretive at the tournament? "The fuck happened?"


"T'is the way'uv things. We're all'uv us wanted men, lass," Larsen answered with a somber shake of his head, his eyes intent on her as she processed the news. "S'only a matter'uv time before our luck runs out."


With a sigh, the old pirate ran a fingertip over his full moustache, his thoughts again lingering on Jimmy and Chaz and how unfortunate it was that their lives would be cut so short when here he was, living far longer than most sailors oughta. "An' that Cap'n'uv ours, he ain't exactly blend in with a crowd," he added with a knowing raise of eyebrows under the floppy brim of his hat. "All it took was bein' in the wrong place at the wrong time and the Duchess's men snatched 'em right up."


"That motherfucking bitch," Brandy cursed under her breath. She hadn't heard much about the Duchess, which had mostly implied she sucked at her job. People of the West walked on eggshells around powerful merchants and certainly tread carefully with the local spy guilds and the sheriffs were legit, but Brandy had never heard anyone actually worry about the Duchess. Brandy had branded her a Kardashian - working the brand, maybe, but mostly a bag of hot air…


Until she wasn't. Until she had Zaire's life in her hands.


"Way of things? No," Brandy shook her head, sudden resolve seizing her. Zaire wasn't swinging yet. And it was not cool that his crew had already taken him for dead. "Z's not just a pirate, and you see it as much as I do." She had no idea how to back up that claim, but all the same, she knew it. It wasn't like she knew what a regular pirate was like, but there was something in her gut that knew Zaire wasn't one. "And he's not going to be brought down by some wrong-time-wrong-place bullshit."


Maybe she was just in denial. Brandy had little to no idea how the legal system in Eventyr worked, but she wasn't going to let ignorance stand in the way of hope. So she looked down at Larsen, turning and placing one hand on her hip. "What do you need?" Brandy asked, frankly. She was good at getting things, and she wanted to contribute. "I'll get it. What do you need?"


Larsen's gaze narrowed as he watched this redheaded girl - likely from the North - react to his words. Her refusal to accept that, sometimes, this was just the nature of the beast, had him feeling sympathy for her - and also maybe a bit of curiosity about her feelings toward his Captain. It was naive to expect Zaire, Jimmy, and Chaz to be allowed to simply walk out of the dungeons just because they all desperately wanted it to be so but that didn't stop Brandy from believing it all the same.


Larsen himself had seen countless pirates hanged for their crimes, sometimes his own crewmates. He'd seen strong Captains, good leaders, lose their lives at the end of a rope and as much as he agreed that there was something different about Captain Zaire Visser, at the end of the day he was still just a man.


"Information'd help," Larsen answered. "But mostly we need a miracle, lass."


"Information is easy," Brandy answered with a nod. Find the right person, get them drunk, make them comfortable. It meant her ceviche wouldn't pan out, but the owners would be happier to have her at the bar anyway. As she turned back toward the door, she concluded, "Z'll work out the miracle."


***


It had been a month now that the Siren's Song had been anchored just off the Island, since Zaire had walked up that familiar gated path to the equally familiar house, since his wife had laid eyes on him for the first time since thinking him dead. She'd broken down in tears at the sight of him, injured and moving slowly, but alive.


So he'd taken the time to heal, to surround himself with people he loved and allow the normalcy of day to day life on land to soothe frayed nerves. He helped to make meals, tend the garden, chased his children along the beach while pretending to be a fearsome kraken, and at the end of the evening he helped to tuck them safely into bed. It wasn't a pace that he could keep up forever; eventually he and his men would get antsy for the hunt and they'd set out again. For now though, Zaire allowed himself to simply enjoy the moments while they lasted - moments had he had come so close to never witnessing again.


Moments like this one, for instance.


"No Dira, like this," Bahari explained, reaching out and taking the fishing net from the toddler. "You gotta 'old it like this . . ."


Dira, of course, was far more interested in trying to drag the net down the beach, watching in fascination as the water moved through the netting, how it dug small trenches into the sand and how quickly they filled with water and were smoothed out once again.


"No!" the five year old Bahari protested, pulling again on the net before whirling to face her father. "Papa! We can't fish if she won't let us use the net!"


"Shh," Zaire soothed, running one hand over Bahari's voluminous curls. "It's time t' eat anyway, love." He started out of the knee-deep waves, making his way toward the basket Eloise had packed them before they'd set out that morning. Inside was bread and cheese, salted jerky and boiled eggs, and while it had taken a bit of persuasion to get Dira to abandon the net, Zaire managed to get both girls settled in the sand with their early lunch.


"You gonna be with us long, Papa?" Bahari asked, scooting a little closer and peering up at him with wide brown eyes.


"Bit longer, yeah," Zaire answered. He'd stripped his shirt off not long after they'd reached the beach, leaving him in just a pair of knee breeches, and he laid back in the warm sand to enjoy the October sun as it climbed higher into the sky.


Bahari nodded, her eyes going back to her meal, and then she said, "Good. I like when yer 'ome."


The words warmed Zaire's heart and he gave her a smile as he squinted against the sun. "I like when I'm 'ome too."


When Brandy stepped through the fairy circle, she was surprised. With every expectation to end up again in Lake City, she was caught off guard to find herself in a thick of tropical woods. As she listened, the sound of lapping waves at the shore not far away became clear as well…


Immediately, her mind turned to the tale Zaire had shared, months ago now, about a man who had come through a fairy circle and been stranded on a deserted island. Sure enough, she looked down to see the fledgling ferns encircling her feet withering - the magic was used up. Panic quickly surged through her veins. Why was she here? And, more importantly, where was here?


"Shit," Brandy sighed out, trying not to panic. "Shit, shit, shitshitshit…"


Her clothes were long as always, in sleeve and skirt, but the fabric was at least light and loose, as her outfit in summertime in New York had been, and didn't hinder her as she broke into a panicked sort of jog toward the sound of the water. If this was a sick joke and she was back on the coast, then the boardwalk would be visible from the shore…


But the treeline broke, and Brandy was ankle deep in the waves before her momentum stopped even though her heavy breathing did not. Casting her eyes about, she didn't see brothels or bars or… much of anything? No, not so - it wasn't the city-scape she expected, but there was life here. She wasn't deserted, thank-fucking-god.


Her relief, though, gave way when her eyes zeroed in on the closest group of people - children and, presumably, their father?  Brandy paused where she was, waves wetting the hem of her skirt, squinting, as recognition lit up her pale features...


A peal of giggles erupted from Dira's mouth as Zaire, flat on his back in the sand, lifted her above his head and blew raspberries on her bare belly.


"Papa! Me next!" Bahari insisted, abandoning the jerky she'd been gnawing on to crawl across the sand and get right in her father's face. "Do it t' me!"


Laughing, Zaire set Dira on his stomach and turned to the older of the two girls. "C'mere, Bahari," he started, reaching for her, but a sudden flurry of movement from further down the beach claimed his attention and he blinked in surprise at the familiar figure who tore out of the trees, stopping just at the surf.


"Papa, who's that?" Bahari asked, but Zaire was sitting up and setting Dira aside so he could climb to his feet.


"A friend," was his vague answer, one hand coming up to shield his eyes from the sun. No, it was Brandy, alright - but what the hell was she doing here? His eyes went, naturally, to the path that lead to his home, where Eloise and his two older daughters were busy mending clothes. There was no reason for any of them to make their way to the beach and, even if they did, Brandy was a friend and nothing more. "Bahari," Zaire said over his shoulder, "check the crab pots, aye?"


"Aye," the five year old answered with only a moment's hesitation, her feet taking her slowly toward the water's edge but her curious eyes were focused on the red-haired stranger down the beach.


"Whataya doin' 'ere, Brandy-love?" Zaire asked once he was close enough. "Not that I ain't glad t' see ya."


Brandy blinked rapidly - it might have looked like she was clearing the blinding sun from her eyes, but there was an unmistakable sheen of tears there as well. Her feet should have made their way back to dry land, but instead, she waded through the shallows toward the man she had been convinced would be a ghost next she saw him…


"You're alive," Brandy said, but the words sounded more like a question. Her hands twitched upward as she wanted to touch him to be sure, but she lowered them quickly. His speckled skin was bare and vividly real, with beads of moisture and dustings of clinging sand… but, remembering too clearly how prickly he had been in their last actual conversation, her fingers instead found her own hair, raking back short ginger locks from her face. "Mr. Larsen half convinced me you were already dead, and then even the rumors dried up…" With a tight laugh, strained with emotion, Brandy trailed off and then could only say again, "You're alive."


Zaire's eyebrows lifted in reaction to her words, her entire bearing. The relief, disbelief, that she felt was clear in the tears shining in her eyes and the way she almost seemed to want to touch him . . .


It was such a stark difference to the way Eloise had greeted him that Zaire couldn't help but compare the two. His wife had nearly leapt into his arms, apologizing when she hurt him, kissing him and crying and holding him close and then, afterwards, insisting to look over his wounds, to feed him and see him to bed.


When Brandy hesitated, Zaire reached out and took her hand, drawing her closer. "Aye," he answered with a small smile. Regardless of how things were left between them, he still considered her a friend and right now, his friend needed some reassurance. "Aye, Brandy-love, I'm alive." What had she heard? Obviously the rumors that the Siren's Song had been taken but there were so many tales and rumors floating around about the crew now that he couldn't be sure. "When'd ya see Mr. Larsen?" he asked. "What'd he tell ya?"


Brandy moved in when the Captain took her hand, her other gripping his arm as if to assure herself he was real, then traveling gently up to his neck - scarred still from the vampire he'd fought off, but neither broken nor strangled as she'd seen in her nightmares too many times after Larson's grotesque prediction. Although it was unwise and she knew it, Brandy had been unable to help googling medieval hangings and the research had only made her more upset.


Since the timeline was different between Earth and Eventyr, Brandy had no idea when she'd run into Larsen. "In Lake City. He said the Duchess was going to hang you." So she had gone to work, finding off-duty soldiers to ply with drink until they got careless trying to impress her. "Then some drunk-ass guards told me that she was going to wait until they had the whole crew…"


Suddenly, Brandy laughed. Being able to touch him seemed to wash away the worries and the tension, and a flick of her wrist to wipe a tear from her cheek and indulged a smile - god, she was so glad he was here! "I told him you'd think of something! How did you escape?"


Brandy's tale made sense. Being ashore in Lake City when the Song had been taken by the King's Navy meant that Mr. Larsen had avoided being arrested at all. Instead the old carpenter had kept his ear to the ground until Zaire, after his release, had sent a man to find him.


"I didn't escape, love," he admitted, his own smile widening as she brushed a tear away and expressed what seemed to be her unwavering faith in him. Wrapping an arm around Brandy's shoulders, Zaire ushered her back toward where Dira was digging through the food basket for the honey biscuits she was sure where tucked in the bottom.


"Sit and I'll tell ya 'bout it," he urged, settling back down into the warm sand. Reaching out, he pulled Dira into his lap and then pushed the basket toward Brandy, "Help y'self if yer 'ungry."


"Papa, b'skits," Dira insisted, pointing one chubby finger toward the food but her dark eyes were fixed on Brandy.


"After yer cheese," Zaire answered, absently. "Brandy, this is Dira, m' youngest." He nodded then toward his elder daughter, who was busy reeling in a crab pot, "And Bahari." Then he gestured toward the beach, the water, the trees behind them, "And this is my 'ome."


Zaire's words only intrigued her more, and Brandy gave Zaire's arm's a slap with a disapproving purse of her lips. "Fucking tease," she joked and easily moved closer, her arm wrapping around his back as his did around her shoulder.


Brandy had no children herself, doubted she ever would, but she loved them. A hearty smile split her face when they approached. The baby had one hand in the cookie jar, so to speak. "Hi there, cutie pie," she greeted pleasantly. The older one was probably barely eight and already trapping crabs, and Brandy raised a hand in a wave before turning to observe the island paradise that Zaire called home. She almost joked that she didn't know how he could leave…


But she did know. Probably the same thing that had her leaving air conditioning and indoor plumbing to be here. Worth it, she thought to herself as she turned her smile back to the pirate captain and settled into the soft sand beside him. "Beautiful."


"So come on," Brandy prompted impatiently as she chose a piece of bread from the basket and examined it a bit too curiously before taking a bite. There was a lot you could learn about a place and its people through their food. It was slightly sweet - sugar, yes. And - coconut? Clever. "What happened?"

TBC


Rachel
 

"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!"


Fin