Chapter 8 Part 3: Wash Away Your Suspicion
Matt smelled like rotten apples that were marinated in wastewater.
He scrunched up his nose as he peeled off his jacket, and hurried to tie Elliot to a tree. Though the smell was strong and disgusting, his nose was slowly starting to get used to it, and that was not a good sign. He tied off the rope around the tree, gave Elliot a pat on the neck and plopped down in front of the creek. As he slipped off his socks and boots, he watched Clandestine out of the corner of his eye.
She was moving slowly.
With the same enthusiasm of a sulking child, she slipped off her oversized jacket and started dipping it into the water, scrubbing out the dried, crusted up goop that the plant's fluids were reduced to after a few minutes in the sun. For a brief moment, he looked back at his own jacket, considering his priorities in cleanliness, before he caught another whiff of himself and came to his decision.
He dug around his saddlebag, pulled out a bar of soap, took off his shirt, and unceremoniously jumped into the water.
The water was surprisingly cold, and he tensed as he curled up his legs and brought his chin under the surface. When he looked back over to Clandestine, she was lowering her arms after blocking whatever part of the splash reached her. As her eyes peeked out at him, he found it difficult to pinpoint her exact emotion.
He knew she was growing fed up with him as much as he was with her. If their shared passive glances didn't make it obvious, their recent 'fight' did. But the stirrings of tension still felt premature - as a precursor to the inevitable dissolvement of their partnership. He didn't know the limits Clandestine would be pushed to before she would break it off, but he was dearly hoping she would be the first to do so.
Though he knew she probably wouldn't. He lifted an arm out of the water with a sigh and started to scrub away at the sticky residue. That was when Clandestine got up, kicked off her socks and shoes, and hopped in beside him. He barely closed his eyes in time as the wave of water smacked into his face. As he rubbed the water out of his eyes he saw the blurred image of Clandestine's head coming up squirting water out of her mouth. She wiped her bangs out of her face and pushed them back into her ponytail with an airy laugh. He sighed again before he continued scrubbing with his soap.
"You know, I've never seen any monsters like that in my book," she pondered. "I mean, I've seen lots of weird ones, like trees that were semi-sentient, but no giant plant traps that eat you alive."
Matt nodded, letting himself sink again into the water with only his head floating above. "That could explain the lack of wildlife," he added dully.
"Mm... that would definitely explain why the forest gave me the heeby-jeebies. It's so quiet. I knew something felt off," she mused.
Matt slow-blinked at her as she stared up into the sky, floating on her back. "Glad that you noticed as well."
She scoffed and smiled. "Of course I would. You think a seasoned monster hunter wouldn't notice?"
Matt only stared at her blankly as she slowly turned her head towards him. Her smile faded. A look of realization crossed her face when she presumably realized what she asked, and what kind of answer she could receive. She looked away.
"Uh... don't answer that," she mumbled.
"Wasn't planning to."
She harrumphed. Matt took that as a sign that she was done with conversation (because any excuse was good enough at that point) and resorted to silently scrubbing away at the rest of the sticky feeling on his skin. Though the water left him chilly, the sun was a warm contrast as it broke through the trees overhead, reflecting off the water and the shiny stones at the edge. When he was done washing, he swam back to the edge of the creek and set the soap on a rock to dry. Before he went to wash his clothes, he backed up into the water again to float and swim around.
He was keenly aware of the subtle wary glances Clandestine was sending his way when she thought he wasn't paying attention. Even as he floated on his back with his eyes pointed up at the sky, he would sink ever so slightly when he saw her eyes land on him. He could feel the questions squirming in her mind just from the way she watched him, observed him, with a look far more calculating and concerned than carefree.
She could tell he was acting - and he was, in truth, pretending to be someone he wasn't to some degree. He was masking certain emotions, playing them down under the pretense of avoiding conflict. But he knew he was failing. Even after years of putting on different masks, it only seemed to be getting harder to maintain them. He knew she was tired of it, and he was tired of it (oh gods, was he tired of it), and for the first time in a very long time, he began to consider removing the mask that was Matt, even partially, in the name of authenticity. Maybe she deserved it.
No, of course she did, but that had never stopped him before. Because what she deserved more was to be safe, and to not know him was to be as safe as she could be with -
"Uh, Matt?" Clandestine called out. "You're floating downstream!"
Matt's head shot up, seeing Clandestine and the horses watching him upstream. He started to swim against the current, taking a minute to get back into shallow water. Clandestine was already drying off, finding a spot to sit in the sun, while her jacket and socks hung over the branch of a nearby tree. Her hair was down and she wrung it with both hands, creating a little puddle beside her.
He hurried as he walked up out of the water, becoming again, self-aware of his collection of scars - now with the burn scarring among them. It was far too late to hide them, and he feared drawing more attention to himself by rushing to cover them up, so he simply hoped that Clandestine would spare him her curiosity.
Thankfully, she was silent as he grabbed his clothes and sat at the edge of the creek to wash them. He kept himself from turning his back to her and instead sat adjacent to it as he started scrubbing the stink from his shirt.
Then Clandestine cleared her throat, immediately filling him with a resigned dread.
"Look, uh," she started. "I'm... I'm sorry I've kept dragging you into the mouths of monsters and stuff. I know it can be really scary and not a lot of people like to just hop into things like that. You probably like-" she laughed. "-Want to live and stuff!" Her laughter continued, and he looked up, watching her smile wane along with her laughter as it grew weaker and less confident. She looked down into her lap, her face more somber than he'd seen before.
"I mean, I guess for me I just... well, I don't really have anyone to make me afraid of dying anymore." She paused, and rubbed her arm, keeping her eyes down. "If that makes sense. That and well, a monster hunter's gotta just go for it sometimes. Or a lot of times, if you're me. Though to be fair, I knew what I was doing with the worms! Sandworms are afraid of fire! I knew that! I just didn't know the goblins would have them trained with fire. Or whatever they did."
As she fell back into silence, she resorted to playing with the sand and dirt, poking and digging with her fingers. Matt took a moment to consider how to reply.
It concerned him that she spoke lightly of wanting to live, which was a reasonable desire, but he felt it was not the time or place to address it. Especially when he knew that their foundation for trust was deteriorating. So he decided on the path of least resistance.
"You really feel that bad about it, don't ya?" he asked.
She finally looked up at him, meeting his eyes for a brief second. "W-well, yeah! But like... you said you were cool with coming with me and being my partner," she said as her voice gradually grew quieter. "I thought it was kind of just implied it would be dangerous..."
I just didn't anticipate you being this reckless.
That was what he wanted to say, but instead, he nodded with a small, apologetic smile. The effort it took to do so convincingly was more than he wanted to admit. "No, you're right. I did agree. It's unfair of me to complain, even if it's mostly inside and such, and you're just pickin' it up telepathically."
She stared at him blankly.
"Tele-" He shook his head. "Nah, nevermind."
"No, no! Tell me!" she urged, leaning forward. "I don't know what that means."
He sighed. "It's like, when things are communicated through your mind. You don't say it out loud, but you can hear someone's thoughts kind of thing."
Clandestine nodded slowly, her eyes wide as she leaned back. "Is that a real thing? Is that some kind of rare magic?"
Matt had to keep his face straight. "...No."
Silence. He looked away to wring the water out of his shirt.
"You don't have magic, do you?"
Matt glanced back at her. "No," he answered simply before wringing his shirt again. There were another few seconds of silence.
"I bet if you did, you wouldn't tell me though..."
Matt froze, holding his damp shirt in his hands. Was she about to ask him directly if he was hiding anything?
"...because it's outlawed," she finished, causing Matt to breathe again as he threw out his shirt into the air with a sharp movement.
"It probably wouldn't be wise," he said.
And with that, they were both quiet.
The years have worn down on me. Like a candle wick burnt down too low, I'm running out of the motivation necessary to maintain that which preserves me. And I am coming to doubt my intentions from the start.
It's possible that all this time, all I ever wanted to do was hide since the beginning. I fear that I only jumped at the opportunity to do so with a justifiable excuse.
And now that I am slipping, and find myself weary, I can't seem to fight it. Years of resolve have dissolved into laziness, and I find myself simply waiting for the opportunity to leave. Then, maybe I can retreat into isolation until the end of my days, or worse things come to me.
I know this won't end well. I can't keep this up, and I don't want to.