Chapter Twenty-Eight: A Liked Complete Fool
Written in collaboration with Silver Midnight
The next morning dawned chilly, but the desert always heated up swiftly. Shoel found Hemlock's camp again just after dawn, feeling somewhere between irritable and depressed; she hadn't slept well at all. The prospect of facing the necromancer again, warring with the desire to just get this whole quest over with so she could free him to go on his way, had made for restless sleep and troubled dreams. Vesper was still roaming around the camp, unsaddled, picking at some of the vegetation and looking like he felt out of place. It a horse could feel out of place. Shoel slid down from Steady's back, catching up to the black stallion and giving him a gentle scratching around the muzzle and ears in greeting.
Hemlock was still asleep by the remains of his fire, bundled up in his bedroll. Unlike previous nights when she'd caught sight of him asleep, he didn't look at peace, rather just hard and maybe somewhat angry. She bit her lip hard. You are not going to cry, she told herself sternly. He's just some stupid necromancer. It doesn't matter if he doesn't like you, as long as he does his job. You're not even supposed to like him. You want him dead, remember?
Not wanting to deal with the "stupid necromancer" yet, Shoel set about quietly putting his things back together and tacking up Vesper. She considered putting his fire back together for long enough to set some of the meat they had left from his last hunt into a pan over it for breakfast for him-- as a peace offering of sorts-- but that was when she remembered she was a dismal cook and he'd probably hate it, anyway. So all that was left was to wake him up.
She approached carefully, crouching down next to him and giving his shoulder a shake. "Hemlock."
Instead of just opening his eyes, or grunting, or anything he usually did, he snapped into motion, grabbing her wrist and shoved her away from him, sending her sprawling onto her rear end. He sat up, glaring at her out of the corner of his eye, and growled, "What?"
To her complete horror, despite all her admonitions of self-control, Shoel burst into tears. She scrambled back to her feet and strode swiftly away, back towards the horses. He didn't follow her, and she wasn't sure whether she was relieved or disappointed. At least she wouldn't have to deal with the embarrassment of bawling like a child in front of him, for the second time now, not yet. Instead of thinking about it, she found Steady and buried her face in his neck, letting him whicker at her and nuzzle her hair. She'd always been better with animals than people....
Hemlock moved past her to Vesper, probably tying down his bedroll. She didn't bother looking up, still trying to calm the hiccoughs her bout of tears had caused. He was completely silent, probably angry with her again. Or still. So it was a complete surprise when, after a long moment and once she finally thought she'd gotten herself back under control, she felt him take her shoulder and pull her away from Steady, folding his arms around her surprisingly gently, one hand behind her head so that her cheek fell onto his shoulder. She hiccoughed again in surprise, and he said, a little hesitantly, "I'm sorry...."
"I am, too," she mumbled into his tunic. If she looked up, she'd start crying again, so she didn't. It was so embarrassing. "Whatever I did, I'm sorry. I just want to be friends, instead of yelling at each other all the time or being awkward."
" ... to be friends?" Hemlock repeated blankly. "I thought you hated me, always thinking I'm out to get you when I never really have been."
"That was stupid of me," she admitted, lifting her head to rub at her eyes. "But I've been raised to fight necromancers. It's a hard habit to break. I know you're not so bad, you're more like me than I thought, but it's so hard to... to think differently. But I'm trying."
One of the hardest things she'd ever had to say got no response whatsoever. She pulled back a bit from the unfamiliar sensation of arms around her, not sure if she'd offended him yet again, to find him staring at the ground. Her brows came together. "Hemlock?"
"It's nothing you need to worry about," the necromancer said at last, raising one hand to rub at his eyes, freeing her. "Just... don't worry about me."
Hard not to do, when he looked like that, but she didn't know how to address that without probably bringing up another argument, and that was the last thing she wanted right now. "Are we all right, then? You and me? Is there anything else we need to say to make sure we don't do this again?"
"There's no guarantees this won't happen again," he mumbled, actually sounding a little sad rather than resentful or annoyed. And, she had to admit, he was probably right. They both had tempers, and they were both proud: a bad combination.
"I suppose so," she sighed. "Nobody can keep from fighting and misunderstanding all the time. Especially us. But for now, at least, are we all right?"
"Whatever," he said vaguely, which was not an answer at all, and was nearly enough to undo her again. Instead, she steeled herself, stepped back from him, and went back to Steady, climbing up into the saddle. He fidgeted under her, sensing that she still wasn't content, but when she patted his neck, he subsided.
I am not like this, she thought fiercely. I don't cry like this! Maybe it's just because I'm stressed. Riding into possible death with a necromancer who gives fucking mixed signals.
Meekly, Hemlock went back to his own horse and mounted up, head still hung. He twiddled Vesper's reins a bit, but didn't nudge him into motion, then gave a loud sigh. "Do you want to know what the problem is?"
Shoel turned wide eyes on him. "Charter take it, yes!" she exclaimed. How many times did she have to ask him?
"I--" Hemlock began then took a deep, rattling breath. She stared at him, finally taking in his obvious discomfort, and wondered if she shouldn't have just let it lie. Too late now.... "Everyone... that I've really cared about I've lost, one way or another. Even those that should have lived as long as me have either died, or they want nothing to do with me. For years I... I have tried to keep away from close relationships... and now... gods dammit, I can't get attached to a human!"
Oh. Oh dear. Well, at least that explained a lot of things. She felt herself going red, and stupidly said the first thing that came to mind. "Well... I'm a particularly long-lived human...." Hemlock didn't say anything, just slammed the heel of his hand to his forehead. Good thing he wasn't wearing his armor; it was presently packed up on Vesper. Shoel cringed. "And a stupid one, too, yes, I know. But I... don't know what to tell you, Hemlock. I haven't worked out that particular problem yet, myself. At least I... now I know what it is, at least."
"Let's just go," Hemlock said in a low voice, eyes focused on the neck of his mount.
Feeling like a complete fool, but at least a liked complete fool, Shoel nodded. "All right."
The necromancer nudged his mount into a canter, heading out from the cover of the sparse trees towards the sea of sand again, and Shoel and Steady followed.
Shoel's abilities and homeworld are copyrighted to Garth Nix.
Quote borrowed from Garth Nix's book, Lirael, from The Book of the Dead.