It was simultaneously comforting and troubling settling into a place so reminiscent of her hometown.
"Do you think everything is going to be secure now?"
"I'm going to try my hardest."
The two girls turned and looked at each other. Fenimore smiled. Shirley managed an awkward laugh. Without any external warning they had just started talking at the same time. Speaking was a way out of the internal storms. Shirley could be too shy and Fenimore could be too blunt, but words were still a temporary relief, whether one said exactly what one meant to say or not (if one erred, there was the possibility for ending up with more trouble than one had begun with, but, well, that was life).
Fenimore sat down, spreading her blue and white skirt across the brilliant grass. Shirley was already sitting, her arms holding her legs up against her chest. Was her tightly clenched posture indicative of defensiveness or of her deep desire to somehow support herself and her people with her own two hands? So far she hadn't been much of a Merines, but when it came down to it, Fenimore would have to give her some credit. She was definitely trying now, and she was making progress. "You go first," she yielded the air to her friend.
"Do you think I'm doing all right now? You were unhappy before. About me being a useless Merines." Even as she threw herself into the task of leading her people as best she could without the full powers of Nerifes to assist her, Shirley still dwelt extensively on the state of her heart. Stella and Senel. She tried to drown her feelings in a sea of action, dashing and darting throughout the village, putting on a brave facade to comfort the growing numbers who looked to her for guidance, but it remained only a facade. Senel was an excellent swimmer. It was no surprise that her feelings for him could handle the typhoon inside. She was tenacious too.
"Oh, don't be concerned about me- I'm watching you every step of the way and I wouldn't be doing that if I didn't like what I saw." In more ways than one, but she wasn't going to say that. "You're making progress."
'I could say the same,' Shirley thought. It wasn't as if Fenimore were exactly colorblind, but she had begun to see the Orerines as people, not beasts. She even seemed to have developed a grudging tolerance regarding her feelings toward Senel...just as Shirley was doing her utmost to efface them. "I'm glad to hear you say that. You've been my biggest critic, Fenimore, but you've always stood by me."
Doesn't she realize that's what friends do? This girl was just as confusing as her feelings for her. Fenimore reached out to scratch her ankle where a particularly sharp blade of grass was poking through her sock. "I do want things to work out for the best- for you and rest of the Ferines. I guess I just have high standards." It was easier to let those standards slide a bit when Shirley was clearly making an effort. This morning alone they had babysat several small children while their usual caregivers (only one of the women was the biological parent of any of these children) left the safe confines of the village to go fishing and scavenging. It was a reminder that there were younger, more vulnerable, orphans than them among the Ferines. Nothing opened one's eyes to the true state of the world like meeting people who were worse off than you. "Don't worry, Shirley. I'm going to be proud of you one of these days. I know it." It was already starting.
"On no, I think we're going to get all grass-stained," Shirley plucked at the white skirt of her borrowed clothes. There were already greenish smears apparent on the silky fabric. She hoped Tieya would be able to get the stains out. She had been kind enough to loan her something else to wear while her own well-worn Orerines-style clothes were washed and mended. It was actually sort of embarrassing to be the center of so much attention. While she went about trying to find ways to be of help to her people, they worked to find little ways to do something for her. She was always given the best portion of meals and her opinion was solicited constantly, even for matters she didn't have much knowledge in. Tieya was doing her best with the clothes Shirley had arrived in, and some other women had taken her measurements to make her proper robes befitting for the Merines.
"Hmm," Fenimore stood back up and tried to see if her skirt had taken on similar markings, "I guess you need to be careful not to press your weight too forcefully against the grass." Somehow she had managed to stay free of distinct stains. Shirley wondered if Fenimore was really that much more graceful in her placement of her weight.
"I was thinking about Senel."
Oh, the painful approach of the inevitable. Fenimore had known he would pop up again sooner or later. She knew there was no way he had actually been erased from her mind, even if she had been doing an extraordinarily good job of keeping those thoughts to herself for the past week. Whatever her reasons for doing so (and Fenimore know there was no way this was intended as any courtesy toward her) she had managed to keep up her resolve considerably longer than Fenimore had expected from her. Shirley might be stubborn as a mule, mainly when it came to clinging to her idealistic beliefs, but she was also vexingly feeble when it came to her mushy feelings for Senel. No matter what resolve she had gathered for any other task, it would dissolve in the face of a conflicting though having to do with the object of her affections. ...What was so great about Senel anyway?
"Yeah?" Fenimore answered blandly. She'd wait and see where this was headed. She loved Shirley. She could give her this much.
"I know, I know, it's silly of me. I need to remember what Stella would've wanted me to do. I need to think about my people. ...But I'm so used to being alongside him. He was practically one of us, Fenimore. I wish he could be here. I wish he were here. It- it would support me. Even as a brother, just as a brother. ...I'd be so much stronger."
Well, insecurity she could empathize with better than lovesickness. She missed her family too. "Maybe he'll come visit you sometime." 'If he really cared about you the way you care about him, he probably would've already come to visit you,' she thought sharply. She wouldn't do anything for her own case in claiming Shirley's affections by speaking out against Senel. She was hoping that she could smooth over those feelings and slip seamlessly into the space he vacated.
She hadn't returned to the mainland because she wanted the chance to stay beside Shirley and see if anything could come of their relationship. The odds were seeming slimmer and slimmer each day.
Maybe it wasn't her. Maybe it was just Shirley. When they weren't together, Shirley was alone. When she wasn't doing anything to help out, she was alone. She was a lot quieter than before.
They both had their own storms to weather.
"Merines!" Walter called down to them, cupping his hands around his mouth to amplify his voice. "Merines! Do you want some lunch? The food is ready!"
"Are you?" Fenimore asked skeptically. With all the mixed feelings flowing like a rip tide through Shirley's troubled eyes, she had a hard time imagining she had much of an appetite worked up.
The petite girl shrugged. "I might as well go. If I don't eat, Maurits will worry about me."
"You shouldn't worry so much about Maurits." Fenimore knew she certainly didn't. It was good that he was providing a support to Shirley and a centralizing force to the Ferines as they gathered on the Legacy, but she got the feeling that he was more interested in Shirley as the Merines than he had ever been in her as a person. In that respect, he was a kinder version of Vaclav. Fenimore wouldn't deny that she had once been the same, but Maurits was older, more responsible. Shouldn't he be wiser as well? "If you don't want to eat, don't eat."
"No, I do." She turned and waved at Walter as she started up the slight slope, "I'm coming, Walter!"
He tucked his hands into his pockets and waited for her so they could walk back to the communal building together. His posture indicated his impatience. Fenimore didn't view him as a rival for Shirley's affections, or even for her attentions. He had Shirley up on a pillar. She spared about as much time for him as she did for everyone else in the village, which wasn't much, when it came to any personal relationships. For such a kind person, she seemed to have a hard time making friends. Then again, maybe she just wasn't trying.
Fenimore blinked back into the real world as she realized Walter was talking to her. Her too. Shirley and Walter were standing together under a tree at the top of the hill. "Uh, yeah, I'm coming." She set off at jog.
They were all eating together because they had no one else to eat with. Maurits, Shirley, Walter, Tieya, Ulburn, Kifa, and herself. No family here. Few attachments. Maurits did most of the talking. He had the most reason to. As Merines, Shirley might be the supposed leader of the Ferines, but Maurits was still the one pulling the strings. It was no secret. He was better at it anyway. He had plenty of experience. In any case, it didn't bother Fenimore. With no pressure on her to add to the conversation she was able to simply observe and think.
The bread was a bit on the dry side. Little pieces of crust cracked off everywhere and fell on her plate, the table, and her skirt. She liked baking bread. She wished someone had asked her to help. She and Shirley had done it before.
Shirley and Maurits talked optimistically about the state of the village and the people they were gathering there. Maybe Shirley felt she owed it to Maurits to put up a strong front. She showed barely a hint of her earlier sadness.
'I don't have a chance with her, do I?' Fenimore thought bitterly. It didn't make any difference how much time they spent together or how kind she was to Shirley- kinder than Senel even. How long would he be holed away in Werites Beacon? Was she going to have be the one who would bend first, giving into her desire to see Shirley happy to the point of dragging her rival back into things?
She knew she wasn't perfect. She wasn't trying to say that, but...Senel was flawed too. Why did Shirley see him through such rose-colored glasses? Why was it he could do no wrong? If Shirley really wanted to respect what Senel had had with her sister, wouldn't she ever stop moping?
As best as Fenimore could tell, Senel had won Shirley's love and devotion just by being there. Just because he was around. And now she was here. Always at Shirley's side, always trying.
"Is the bread that bad, Fenimore?" Kifa asked timidly. She only met the fiercer girl's gaze for a moment, afraid of the rejection she might find there. Like all the Ferines gathered on the Legacy, Kifa had suffered enough already. She couldn't take another harsh word. Whenever she was threatened with criticism, she looked about ready to burst into tears.
"No, it's not bad at all," Fenimore reassured her. Just like Shirley, Kifa was weak. The Ferines weren't about to reestablish themselves by being weak. ...If only Shirley would acknowledge her, Fenimore would have no more weakness. It was only the turmoil over her feelings for Shirley that made her thin. She wished she could be like Senel, in whatever way that made Senel so special to Shirley. Never in her life would had she expected to be jealous of an Orerines.
"Oh," Kifa's face lightened. "I just wondered what was making you look so bitter. Sorry, Fenimore."
What was there to say? At least Kifa had noticed her change in expression. Shirley, no longer talking, just sipping her soup, still didn't even look her way. What else could she do? What else could she say? What else did she have to give?