Chapter 11: Beans and Bruises
"I didn't know Alexander personally," he said.
It was a start.
Clandestine tilted her head slightly but looked down to scoop out another serving in the second bowl, waiting for him to elaborate.
"He was working on behalf of the kingdom," James said. "As one of their hired hunters. They're different than bounty hunters. They work in a more... official capacity. As emissaries of the king."
Clandestine hummed, and she looked up, now with both bowls in her hand, a spoon tucked into each. Briefly getting to her feet, she drew closer, sitting about a foot from him. She set one bowl in her lap and set the other beside him.
"So he was getting paid?" she asked.
"...Yes," James answered. He was still holding himself upright with his good arm at the moment, and his other arm still pained him. He leaned forward a little, wincing as he relieved his arm of bearing his weight and reached over to grab the bowl of beans.
He had to admit he didn't have much of an appetite, but he wasn't going to refuse it. And he knew he needed to eat to help flush the drugs out of him.
He set the bowl in his lap, swirling the spoon in the beans.
"He mentioned a former colleague of mine," James went on. "And... former friend. Back in the Moonlight Kingdom."
He hesitated, looking up at Clandestine.
Her mouth was full, but she was watching him expectantly.
"You probably already deduced that I used to be a soldier," James said.
"The armor on the poster kind of gave it away," Clandestine said through her chews. "But it also said as much. You know. After I read it. And, well, I remembered you after seeing the poster. I've seen them around for a few years. Never really gave it much thought until now. I never really expected to run into anyone famous."
"Infamous," Clandestine corrected.
"So, Matt," Clandestine said, looking like she was getting more comfortable. "Should I keep calling you Matt? Or do you want to be called by your real name, Tiberius Hemming? Not that I'd use your full name, of course. That's reserved for when I'm angry or when I want to be formal for a joke."
"I don't have a last name, by the way," Clandestine said quickly. "So you'll just have to call me Clandestine when you're angry."
James found himself staring at her for a moment, still processing her first question. It felt needlessly complicated when he thought about how to explain the truth, but he supposed... he'd try.
"Tiberius isn't my real name either," James said, testing the waters.
Clandestine slow-blinked, spoon in her mouth.
"Are you trying to mess with me?" she said through her mouthful of beans, holding her hand over her mouth.
"No," James said. "I... I changed my name soon before I went into the army. But it's not the name I was given. And I only changed it for..."
James sighed again. This felt like too long of a story to summarize into a few sentences.
"My real name is James," he said with a small huff. "James Hawke."
Clandestine looked like she was hurrying to finish chewing.
"James Hawke," she repeated after swallowing. But she sounded skeptical.
"I'm... I'm being honest," James said in earnest, unsure of how to earn her trust.
"Why don't you just go by that all the time? Why go by Matt if your legal name with the kingdom or whatever is different already?" she asked.
James felt embarrassed at the simplicity of the question.
"I..." he started. "I didn't want to risk it."
"I guess that makes sense," she said. "So. James, then. I can do that. I'll have to stop thinking of you as Matt-Tiberius in my brain."
"Sorry if it's been confusing," James said weakly, looking down into his bowl.
"I mean, I'm still really confused about a lot of things," Clandestine said. "I'm just trying not to pelt you with questions since you're like, waking up from what was basically a drug-induced coma and also we both almost died. So I'm okay if the answers come a little slow. No one's found us yet, so I'm hoping we at least have a little time to get our bearings. It'll be a lot easier for me now that you're not..."
She gestured at him with a circular motion of her spoon.
"...Unconscious," James finished for her.
"Yeah. That," she said.
She scooped up more beans but paused before taking a bite.
"Speaking of," she said. "We really shouldn't stick around for long. But I don't know how I feel about you riding a horse at the moment. You look a little..."
She gestured at him loosely with her spoon again.
"I know," James said flatly.
"We've got another horse, by the way," Clandestine said, looking over her shoulder at the dark horse that stood next to Billy and Elliot. "It was Alexander's. I don't know what to do with it, but it felt wrong to just leave it."
James opened his mouth to respond but found himself snapping it shut.
Two things just happened. One: Clandestine had lumped them together as a "we." Two: she'd implied that they should travel together - or would be traveling together.
"We," James repeated.
Clandestine's mouth was full again when she looked at him with a confused "Hm?"
"You said we," James clarified.
Clandestine swallowed her food to speak again.
"Yeah. That's proper grammar, right?" she asked.
Either she was trying to be funny, or she really didn't catch on.
"Are you--" he started, but paused, letting out a deep sigh before he reset and tried again.
"Clandestine," he said.
"Does that mean you're mad?" Clandestine asked quietly.
"I'm not mad," James said wearily. "I'm being serious. Look. I'm beyond grateful for everything you've done. You went out of your way, putting your safety and your reputation at risk to help me. I don't know how easy it will be for you to go back to a normal life after all of this, but you are not obligated to stay here and help me. I would never ask that of you. The life I live is one of constant wandering, and I always have to be on my guard. I don't want to drag you into this any more--"
"I helped you because I wanted to," Clandestine interrupted sharply.
"Sometimes," Clandestine went on when he couldn't finish the thought. "People see someone in trouble and recognize they're a decent person, and then they decide to help. Sure, what I did was a little crazy. And I made a big mess of things by setting the whole valley on fire. But you have to be a little crazy to choose to be a monster hunter, and you have to be a little crazy to do what's right sometimes, too. Especially when it's scary."
James stared at her, having no response at the ready.
Clandestine's explanation felt familiar. It was like he was hearing the voice of his younger self - from five years ago - through her. The sentiment she shared wasn't one he'd lost entirely, but it had been one he'd lost sight of in his years running from the law and all of the people who'd come after him.
Years of hiding and running had jaded him. He knew that much. But it'd been a long time since he'd heard anyone so plainly speak with so much confidence on the matter of taking action when they saw someone in need. Though it was a common thought many agreed with, few actually put it into practice, especially if it cost them greatly.
He'd dramatically put it to practice once, knowing it would change the course of his life forever.
Now he was here.
James blinked, realizing he'd accidentally made eye contact with Clandestine. He quickly looked away.
"What?" Clandestine asked.
James looked down and shook his head.
"Sorry," he muttered. "It's just -- thank you."
"It's just what?" Clandestine pressed.
"It doesn't matter," James said.
Clandestine was quiet for a moment, and then took another bite of beans, chewing as silence fell between the two of them, apart from the sound of the still-crackling fire and the distant chirping of crickets in the night.
James stared down into his own bowl, feeling the tension in his chest stew, making his stomach flip in turn.
Even though he tried to scoop up some beans, he couldn't bring himself to eat it. He was afraid he wouldn't keep it down.
"You said Alexander mentioned a former colleague," Clandestine said, breaking the lull.
James glanced up at her.
"A friend?" she added.
"Former... friend," he said.
Clandestine's expression softened, and she nodded slightly.
"Are they the person who sent Alexander after you?" she asked.
James looked back down into his bowl.
"...Maybe so," he said quietly.
"Must've been hard," Clandestine said. "Did the falling out happen around the same time you, uh..."
"Yes," James said. "It did."
There were a few seconds of hesitation where James could feel Clandestine building up the gumption to ask. It had been the question they'd both been dancing around ever since he'd woken up. It was the question everything hinged upon - it wasn't just about a falling out with a friend. It was about why he was wanted in the first place. What had he done that resulted in all of this? Why were they here?